Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.
~Albert Einstein

So, tomorrow is Pi Day which will not happen again until 2115 — and the date also just so coincides with the birthday of Albert himself. Pi (the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet) represents a mathematical constant, namely the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter or approximately 3.14159265 (3.14 for short). The diameter of a circle is the distance from edge to edge, measuring straight through the center point, and the circumference is the distance around the circle. By measuring circular objects over time, it has always turned out that the distance around a circle is a tad more than 3x the width.

Ergo: pi equals the circumference divided by the diameter (π = c/d). Conversely, the circumference is equal to pi times the diameter (c = πd).

Being a constant number, pi applies to circles and spheres of any size. To Pi aficionados, this number has even been calculated to over a trillion digits beyond the decimal point, and this irrational number happens to continue infinitely without settling into a repeating pattern.

So, join this zany worldwide celebration of all mathematical enigmas by creating and relishing something round.

BLUEBERRY PIE (PI)

Dough (Pâte Fine Sucrée)
2 egg yolks
6 T ice water

2 1/2 C all purpose flour
1/4 t salt
3 T granulated white sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into 1″ bits

Filling
4 C fresh, plump blueberries
1/2 C granulated white sugar
1 T ground cinnamon
2 gratings fresh nutmeg
Small dash, vanilla extract
2 T cornstarch
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 T lemon zest

Unsalted butter bits, chilled and cut into 1″ pieces

Egg Wash
1 fresh local egg, beaten with 1 T water

Gently whisk the yolk with the water until it is well blended.

Place the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10-15 seconds. Pour water and yolk mixture through the feed tube until the dough just holds together when pinched. If necessary, add more water. Do not process more than 30 seconds. Knead the dough for less than one minute and your work surface and then gather into a ball.

(Alternatively — place the flour, salt, and sugar in a round bowl and combine. Add the butter and work with your hands, mashing it through your fingers to have everything blend together. It will form into small lumps or a cornmeal like consistency after 1 or 2 minutes. Pour the yolk mixture into the round bowl and mix vigorously with your fingers until all the ingredients are assembled together into a round ball.)

Divide the dough in half, flattening each half into a thick round disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour before using. This will chill the butter and relax the gluten in the flour.

After chilling, unwrap and place one dough on a floured surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with flour too. Roll the pastry with light pressure, from the center out. To prevent the pastry from sticking to the counter and to ensure uniform thickness, add some flour and keep lifting up and turning the pastry a quarter turn as you roll from the center of the pastry outwards. Turn the dough over once or twice during the rolling process until it is about 11″ in diameter and less than 1/4″ thick. Fold the dough in half and gently transfer to a 9″ pie pan by draping it over the rolling pin, then moving it onto the plate and unrolling it. Once in the plate, press the dough firmly into the bottom and sides of the pan. Trim the excess dough to about 1/2″ all around the dish, then tuck it under itself around the edge of the plate. Brush off any excess flour and trim the edges of the pastry to fit the pie pan. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.

Then, remove the second dough from the refrigerator and roll it into a 12″ circle (also think about a lattice top). Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

In a small round bowl mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cornstarch, lemon juice and zest. Place the blueberries in a large round bowl. Add the mixture to the blueberries and gently toss to combine.

Remove the crusts from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for a few minutes so they can become pliable. Carefully pour the blueberry filling into the chilled bottom pie crust. Strew the butter pieces over the blueberry filling. Moisten the edges of the pie shell with a little water and then place the top crust over the blueberries. Tuck any excess pastry under the bottom crust and then crimp or flute the edges using your fingers. Brush the top (or lattice) with the egg wash and cut slits from the center of the pie out towards the edge of the pie to allow steam to escape. You may wish to cover edge with 2″ strip of foil to prevent excessive browning. Cover the circular pie with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill while the oven is preheated.

Preheat the oven to 425 F

Place an oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or sheet pan on the rack while it preheats.

Set the round pie on the baking stone or sheet pan lined with parchment paper or foil about 2/3 of the way down. Bake the pie for about 20 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Continue to bake the pie for about 35-45 minutes or until the crust is a deep golden brown color and the juices are bubbly and thick. If the edges of the pie are browning too much during baking, cover with foil.

Remove the round blueberry pie from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 2 or so hours before slicing. Resist cutting the pie immediately and then serve warm or at room temperature with round globes of vanilla ice cream.

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Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.
~Jane Austen

Apple season draws nigh, and so does that pie. The pomaceous and biblically forbidden fruit of the apple tree, species Malus domestica, has been transformed into a scrumptious icon of motherhood—apple pie—an almost strangely ironic culinary image of Americana. Over centuries, the apple has historically become a symbol for temptation, seduction and outright sin. In Latin, the words in singular for “apple” (malus) and “evil” (malum) are strikingly similar, and they are even identical in the plural form. So it follows that by eating the malus from the tree of knowledge, Eve contracted malum.

The protusion at the front of the human throat has been called an “Adam’s Apple” simply because the forbidden fruit became lodged in Adam’s throat. Right.

Paris gave the golden apple of Eris (goddess of discord and strife) to Aphrodite after being bribed by her with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. In so doing, he incurred the wrath of Hera and Athena who also coveted the fruit. So, this pome pass ultimately caused the epic Trojan war.

The “fruit of the poisonous tree” is a metaphorically oriented legal doctrine that describes evidence gathered with the aid of information obtained illegally. That is, if the source of evidence (the “tree”) is tainted, then anything gained from it (the “fruit”) is as well and therefore inadmissible. An extension of the now rapidly eroding exclusionary rule, the “fruit of the poisonous tree” became precedent in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920). Even though it has legal underpinnings, the phrase has biblical origins in the gospel of Matthew which goes something like this:

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither [can] a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Matthew 7:17-20

Given the negative implications, dark origins and sin appended to the apple, how did that hackneyed simile “As American as Mom and Apple Pie” make it into our jargon as an unassailable expression of national ethos? A pledge of allegiance of sorts. Some world views even have insisted that words like “God” and “Baseball” be included in the slogan which makes it a real mouthful, intellectually and syllabically.

Best guess? “For Mom and apple pie” was supposedly a stock answer given by American GI’s entering World War II whenever asked why they were going to war. But, don’t quote me.

By the way, my mom was not terribly fond of making homemade apple pies (cherry was her forte). That did not detract in the least from her innate skills as a mother or cook.

APPLE PIE

Dough (Pâte Fine Sucrée)
2 egg yolks
6 T ice water

2 1/2 C all purpose flour
1/4 t salt
3 T granulated white sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into 1″ bits

Filling
6 large tart apples, peeled, cored, and sliced about 1/4″ thick
1/2 C granulated white sugar
1/4 C light brown sugar
1 lemon, zested
1 T lemon juice
3/4 t ground cinnamon
1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 t sea salt
2 T flour

2 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 egg, beaten with 1 T water (egg wash)

Gently whisk the yolk with the water until it is well blended.

Place the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10-15 seconds. Pour water and yolk mixture through the feed tube until the dough just holds together when pinched. If necessary, add more water. Do not process more than 30 seconds. Knead the dough for less than one minute and your work surface and then gather into a ball.

(Alternatively, place the flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl and combine. Add the butter and work with your hands, mashing it through your fingers to have everything blend together. It will form into small lumps or a cornmeal like consistency after 1 or 2 minutes. Pour the yolk mixture into the bowl and mix vigorously with your fingers until all the ingredients are assembled together into a ball.)

Divide the dough in half, flattening each half into a thick disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour before using. This will chill the butter and relax the gluten in the flour.

After chilling, unwrap and place one dough on a floured surface and sprinkle the top of the dough with flour too. Roll the pastry with light pressure, from the center out. To prevent the pastry from sticking to the counter and to ensure uniform thickness, add some flour and keep lifting up and turning the pastry a quarter turn as you roll from the center of the pastry outwards. Turn the dough over once or twice during the rolling process until it is about 11″ in diameter and less than 1/4″ thick. Fold the dough in half and gently transfer to a 9″ pie pan by draping it over the rolling pin, then moving it onto the plate and unrolling it. Once in the plate, press the dough firmly into the bottom and sides of the pan. Trim the excess dough to about 1/2″ all around the dish, then tuck it under itself around the edge of the plate. Brush off any excess flour and trim the edges of the pastry to fit the pie pan. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.

Then, remove the second dough from the refrigerator and roll it into a 12″ circle. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

In a large bowl combine the sliced apples, sugars, lemon juice, zest, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and flour.

Remove the crusts from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for a few minutes so they can become pliable. Pour the apple filling into the chilled bottom pie crust. Strew the butter pieces over the apple filling. Moisten the edges of the pie shell with a little water and then place the top crust over the apples. Tuck any excess pastry under the bottom crust and then crimp or flute the edges using your fingers. Brush the top with the egg wash and cut slits from the center of the pie out towards the edge of the pie to allow steam to escape. You may wish to cover edge with 2″ strip of foil to prevent excessive browning. Cover the pie with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill while you preheat the oven.

Preheat the oven to 425 F

Place the oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or sheet pan on the rack while it preheats.

Set the pie on the stone or pan. Bake until the crust is brown, juices start to bubble through the slits and the apples feel tender when a sharp knife is inserted through one of the slits—about 45 to 55 minutes.

Remove the pie from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 3 hours before slicing. Resist cutting the pie immediately. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream.

Basic Pasta Dough

June 10, 2009

Pasta (the Italian word for dough)—from the Latin pasta “dough, pastry cake, paste”, and before the Greek πάστα (pasta) “barley porridge”—has such convoluted origins, that its history demands much more than this brief space allows. In any event, making pasta has been an ancient and time honored tradition.

One of life’s simple pleasures, airy and delicate fresh pasta opens with that slight al dente resistance, but still almost melts in your mouth on the back-end. Whether by machine or hand, the goal is simple: dough with a smooth texture, elastic and pliable, yet sturdy.

BASIC PASTA DOUGH

3 organic free range eggs, beaten
Pinch of sea salt
2 C all purpose flour
Water, as needed

By Machine:

Attach the flat beater to your stand up mixer, then add half of the flour mixture and the eggs, turning to a low speed and mix 30 seconds. Add the rest of the sifted flour mixture and mix an additional 30 seconds, adding sprinklings of water as needed. Variables such as humidity, temperature, egg size and gluten content of the flour will govern water needs.

Note: To test for correct consistency, pinch a small amount of dough together after mixing with the flat beater. If it stays together and not gluing to your fingers, the dough is in good shape. It may be necessary to adjust by adding flour or water to reach the proper harmony.

Exchange flat beater for the dough hook. Again turn to a low speed and knead for 2 to 3 minutes, until a dough ball is formed. Remove dough from bowl and on a lightly floured surface hand knead for a couple of minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic with a slight hint of stickiness. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap to prevent a dry skin from forming. Let rest for at least 30 minutes before dividing, rolling and cutting.

By Hand:

Mound flour in a bowl or on a large wooden bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and then add the eggs. Using your fingers, begin to blend flour and eggs from the center out, slowly gathering the flour from the perimeter. When the flour and egg are mixed, add a couple drops of water if necessary.

When the dough forms a mass, transfer it to a lightly floured surface and start kneading, using primarily the palms of your hands. Continue kneading for a minimum of 10 minutes, dusting the board with additional flour as necessary. The dough should be smooth and elastic with a slight hint of stickiness. Form into a ball and wrap dough in plastic wrap. Let rest for at least 30 minutes before dividing, rolling and cutting.

Rolling and Cutting:

Divide the dough, but cutting into 4 pieces, wrapping 3 of them in plastic or covering them with a towel. Flour the dough very lightly then flatten until it is about 1/4″ thick. Set the rollers of the the pasta machine to the widest setting. Feed the dough into and through the machine with your hands. As the flattened dough comes out of the machine, retrieve it gently with your open palm. Avoid pulling the sheets of dough out of the machine; instead allow the pasta to emerge and support it lightly with your hand. Fold the dough into thirds, flatten it slightly with your hands and roll it through again and repeat this process 4 or 5 more times.

If throughout the process the pasta sheets become become too long to work with, cut into two pieces and continue.

Set the rollers to the next thinnest setting and lightly flour the dough, but do not fold. Pass the dough through the machine on each progressive setting until the dough is at desired thinness (usually the next to last or last setting). Repeat the entire process with the remaining pieces of dough.

Let the dough rest on towels or a floured work surface. Use machine to cut into desired shapes or strands.

Yes, life has many onions.
~Skip Coryell

While tartes aux oignons are considered a specialty of the formerly embattled northeast border region of Alsace, they are found throughout the country — so it is a recipe that bodes well in any département.

Passed back and forth between tribes, royalty, governments and churches over centuries, Alsace-Lorraine (Ger: Elsass-Lothringen) eventually evolved into a region shaped by both French and German cultures. Space does not permit me to adequately recount its strife-ridden, treaty-rent past. Suffice it to say despite its beauty Alsace-Lorraine was partially born of a dolorous recipe with unsavory ingredients: men, liberally seasoned with lands, boundaries, intolerance, suppression and religion. Sound familiar?

Even an aperçu of modern times reflects these geo-political vacillations. Following the Franco-Prussian War, the area was annexed by the German Empire in 1871 via the Treaty of Frankfurt and became a Reichsland. At the conclusion of World War I, the province reverted to France under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. Nazi Germany then again occupied the territory during World War II, beginning in 1940, but the end of the war placed Alsace-Lorraine back in French hands where it has remained since.  With each war, inhabitants of this fair land were made to overhaul their allegiances, citizenship, language, and the like to appease the conquering forces.

In more recent history, efforts have been made to embrace Alsace-Lorraine’s duel Gaullic and Germanic personalities. The cuisine of both cultures have retained their individual identities yet have also remained intertwined — bäeckeofe, foie gras, sauerkraut (choucroute), quiche lorraine, sausages, smoked pork, and so on, all cohabitate peacefully.

ONION TART (TARTE AUX OIGNONS)

1 recipe pâte brisée*

3 slices bacon or pancetta
2 C yellow onions, peeled and very thinly sliced
1/4 C chives, chopped
Pinch of dried thyme

3 large organic, free range eggs
2-3 C heavy cream
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
Grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out the pâte brisée on a floured board, and line a 9” removable-bottom tart shell with it. Flute the edge of the pastry. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator while making the filling.

Cut the bacon into lardons and fry in a heavy skillet until crispy brown. Set aside and drain on paper towels.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onions, stirring regularly, until they are tender and just beginning to caramelize. Stir in the bacon, chives and thyme until well mixed. Remove the skillet from the heat.

In a small bowl, beat the egg and cream together. Add a pinch or two of salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Add this to the onions, stirring to combine.

Pour the onion and egg mixture into the pastry shell. Bake tart for about 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the custard is firm. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Serve warm or room temperature.

*Pâte Brisée

1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
6 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 T lard or shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 T ice water

Place all the ingredients except the water, in a large bowl. Add the water mash and work with your hands and fingers so that is assembled into a solid, smooth ball. If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Makes for rich but delicate fare when paired with a simple green salad, a crusty baguette, and a crisp Alsatian white or Provençal rosé

Pizza & Calzone Dough

April 14, 2009

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.
~Yogi Berra

Pizza has a lengthy and storied career despite its lack of a precise birthplace or fixed home of origin…an eternal, jiving gypsy of foods.

Tracing the history of pizza can prove tortuous. Any number of cultures or peoples who mastered the art of heating a mixture of flour and water on a stone could rightly stake claim to inventing these sumptuous edible tables. I will offer an abbreviated, anecdotal (far from academic) version. Chronologically precise? Doubtfully.

Evidence of flat breads have been found at prehistoric archeological digs. Breads we now call focaccia may date back as far as the ancient Etruscans. Focaccia literally means “flat bread,” from the Latin root focacius, meaning hearth.

Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Pharaoh’s birthday with a flat bread seasoned with herbs; and early historians such as Herodotus, described centuries old Babylonian recipes that bear resemblances to contemporary pizza crust. The ancient Greeks baked round flat breads annointed with oil, herbs, spices and dates which they called plankous or plankuntos. During lengthy marches, soldiers of the Persian king Darius the Great were known to bake a form of flat bread covered with cheese and dates upon their shields. In the epic Aeneid, the classical Roman poet Virgil alluded to the practice of using bread as an edible platter for other foods: “…we devour the plates on which we fed.”

So, a loose thread has developed that pizza gradually evolved from the ancient flatbreads relished by varying cultures in the Mediterranean rim. However, little debate exists that Italy took pizza to today’s level.

Pizza adopted its more current form in pre-Renaissance Naples, where impoverished peasants used limited ingredients (wheat flour, olive oil, lard, cheese and natural herbs) to make a seasoned, garnished flat bread. Later, tomatoes were brought to Europe from Peru and Mexico of the New World. Tomatoes were originally believed to be toxic; fortunately, the poorer denizens of Naples mustered the courage to add this once strictly ornamental pomidori to the crusty dough, creating the first basic tomato pizza.

In the late 18th century, Naples bustled and street vendors bought pizzas from small stands and sold them in slices from lidded metal boxes or narrow boards. A pizza delivered to King Ferninando I and Queen Maria Carolina was said to be so well received that the king had a red tiled pizza oven built at the royal palace.

In 1889, King Umberto I of Italy, and his wife, Queen Margherita were touring Naples. They asked to sample the fare of the most celebrated of the current pizzaiolis, Raffaele Esposito, even though partaking of such peasant fare was thought unseemly for royalty. Not wishing to disappoint, he prepared several pizzas, one of which was patriotically dressed with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes (the tricolors of the Italian flag)…dedicated to the Queen and coined “Pizza Margherita.”

Pizza migrated to America with Italians in the latter half of the 19th century, but did not achieve broad notoriety until after World War II, when servicemen stationed overseas returned to the states craving these newly discovered exotic pies.

The actual word “pizza” may be a derivative of the Latin word picea, a word which Romans used to describe the blackening of bread in an oven. Others assert that the word pizza is rooted in an Old Italian word meaning “a point,” which in turn became the Italian word pizzicare, which means “to pinch or pluck.”

Do not be deluded into thinking that pizza is some complicated dish unworthy of your efforts or too banal for your guests. You can make divine homemade pizzas with little outlay of time or capital.  All that is needed is to craft dough (flour, water, yeast, salt and honey) watch the ball rise, lightly scatter (even underload) with toppings, slide into a very hot oven with a paddle onto an already well-heated stone or steel and cook briefly.  You can riff on classics far and wide too.

Pizza is not only sublimely delicious — strewn with a small bevy of fresh ingredients, it is a visual feast.

PIZZA DOUGH

Extra virgin olive oil to coat bowl

1 C warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast packet
1 T organic honey

3+ C all purpose flour
1 t sea salt
3 T extra virgin olive oil

Pour warm water into small bowl; stir in yeast and honey until it dissolves. Let stand until yeast activates and forms foam or bubbles on the surface, about 5 minutes.

Rub large bowl lightly with olive oil. Mix flour and salt in stand up, heavy duty mixer equipped with flat paddle. Add yeast mixture, flour, salt and olive oil; mix on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Refit mixer with dough hook and process at medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic—or transfer to lightly floured surface and knead dough by hand until smooth. Kneading helps develop strength and elasticity in the dough. During this step, add more flour by tablespoonfuls if dough is too sticky. Work dough with hands into a smooth ball.

Transfer to large oiled bowl, turning dough until fully coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then a dishtowel and let dough rise in warm draft free area until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes for quick rising yeast and 1 1/2 hours for regular yeast. Punch down dough and work with hands into a smooth ball. Cut and divide into two rounded equal balls and let rest, sometimes overnight.

Place dough on well floured board or large work surface and roll out, starting in center and working outward toward edges but not rolling over them. Roll the dough to roughly 12 inches in diameter, but always feel free to create any shape to your liking or whim. Transfer to a pizza paddle which is either covered in cornmeal or heavily floured so it can slide off easily into the oven. Lightly brush with olive oil. Then add the toppings, which were chopped, cut, prepared and/or cooked in advance.

A word to the wise—do not overburden pizzas with toppings; rather, try to maintain balance and integrity, always allowing the crust to play a central role in the tasting theater. Too often pizzas are heavily laden with a plethora of ingredients that bury the crust and offer little to the savory character of these rustic delights. So, please use a light hand and err on the side of less vs. more.

With calzone, follow the dough procedure described above; but, once rolled out add toppings only to half of the dough circle, leaving a 1″ border around the half circle. Moisten the edge with water and fold the uncovered side over the filled half. Press the edges of the dough together to seal. Calzones usually take a couple minutes longer to cook. Lightly brush the top with olive oil right after the calzone is removed from the oven.

On cooking pizza: The ideal environment is directly on the tile floor of an intensely hot wood fired or stone oven. As most home kitchens are accoutered with a simple gas or electric oven, we have to accomodate. So, either use a thick, heavy pizza stone or place a layer of unglazed ceramic tiles in the bottom rack of the oven. Crank up the dial to 500 F for a sufficient time to assure that both the stone and oven are fiercely hot.

Gently shake the paddle attired with the already topped dough to make sure the pizza is loose enough to slide onto the hot stone. With a flip of the wrist, slowly slide the pizza from the paddle onto the stone and cook until slightly browned and crisp, about 10-12 minutes. Once removed, immediately grate fresh parmiggiano-reggiano on top. Slice and serve.

No need to worry, readers. Pizzas are a revered food at this table, so topping recipes will follow on the next post and later throughout the blog.

Pourboire: Some fine pizza crafters suggest that once the early kneading is complete, and the dough is divided, you should turn out each piece on a floured surface, folding and kneading each about four times until it forms a smooth ball. Then, set each ball in a lidded glass or plastic bin large enough to allow it to double in size. Settle a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough, then cover with the lid. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours before shaping and baking. This prolonged fermentation not only develops the dough’s structure, it also enables starches to transform into sapid sugars—resulting in a svelte, airier crust.