Baking: It’s Not as Scary as it Looks

This is my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Bright, cheery, promise of all things sweet, sticky, crumbly, flaky and satisfying. But until very recently, this trusty kitchen tool was more like my personal “Dr. Doom.” I kid you not; this gadget frightened and intimidated me. My inability (read: refusal) to use it, evidenced by its perpetual, almost mocking gleam — no caked-on residue here — was made all the worse by my ignorance. I could not distinguish between a dough hook and a paddle attachment, much less figure out how to use them.

The truth is, there comes a certain level of expectation among family and friends when you spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen, like I do. While my cooking seemed to produce consistently positive results, there was no denying that question marks hung in the air of my overheated, active kitchen: Is anything sweet or otherwise dessert-like ever going to come out of those ovens?

It was time to (wo)man up.

Fortunately, the baking gods sent me a sign. The venerable Culinary Institute of America was offering a “Best Of” boot camp for food enthusiasts (see Never Too Late Risotto), with an entire day devoted to pastry and desserts! There it was in black and white: my baking lifeline. If a world-renowned institute of culinary training couldn’t beat me into submission and encourage me to finally take that stand mixer for a spin, there truly was no hope for me.

As it turns out, this story has a happy ending. I returned home from the Culinary armed with knowledge, skills, tricks and tips, and most important, self-belief — perhaps even a little moxie. Now I can’t seem to keep my measuring cups out of the flour canister. There isn’t a pie, savory or sweet, that I won’t try. And since so often these confections begin with the perfect dough, I am sharing this simple recipe with you. Once you’ve conquered this surprisingly easy skill, the sky’s the limit. It is my hope that the following primer will help take you there.

Perfect Pie Dough–Every Time
There are few, if any, variations among the ingredients and methods in most of the pie dough recipes I’ve seen and tried. Some bakers insist on using lard if an especially flaky crust is what you’re after, but I believe that butter provides all the flakiness you need. There is also some discourse about the benefits of hand blending versus food processing. I don’t think you can go wrong either way, but a quick whiz in the Cuisinart is certainly faster. Additionally, some recipes include both all-purpose and cake flour; again, either or both will work. My trusted source for a perfectly flaky pie crust is How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman.

Ingredients:
1 c. plus 2 T all-purpose flour (you will need more for rolling out the dough)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. sugar (optional; I do not use unless I am making an especially sweet crust)
8 T (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 T. ice water, plus more if necessary

Combine flour, salt and sugar (if using) in a food processor and pulse once or twice.  Add the butter bits and turn on the machine, processing until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture resembles cornmeal. This should only take several seconds; do not over-process.

Add the ice water and pulse a few more times until the dough just starts to come together and form a ball.  Add water if necessary to hold dough together, but avoid adding too much. If you do and the mixture becomes sodden, add a bit more flour.

Remove dough ball from food processor and wrap it in plastic wrap. Avoid over-handling the dough. Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes (and up to 3 days) before proceeding with your recipe. Here, I used the dough to create homemade cheese crackers, a recipe I borrowed from In the Kitchen with Kath.
(*This blog post originally appeared on www.projectlife.net)

Birthday or Any Day: Celebrate Being You

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My sister-in-law celebrated her 45th birthday recently. And celebrated, and celebrated, and celebrated. True , it’s a birth-DAY, but the hell with what the calendar says; if you’ve got the desire, the stamina and a wide enough circle of friends … Continue reading

Girlfriends

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When I was in elementary school, I had a best friend named Jane. Jane was an only child with an active imagination. I spent many weekends at Jane’s creaky old house, sleeping late in her giant four-poster bed with the worn … Continue reading