Perfect Pie Crust & Paul Hollywood

Faking is basically what I do half the time I make anything. I pretend that it will work - that odd flavor combination, that interesting pairing of textures. And usually this impudence pays off with success. While watching the first season of The Great British Baking Show, my discomfort grew with certainty: I would die if I had to stand in front of Paul Hollywood and actually watch him eat anything I've baked. Why? Because I mostly fake those complex techniques, and he would have me pegged in three flat seconds. I mean, I know in theory that some of the things I make shouldn't work. But they pretty much always do and I've become extremely good at trusting that, to my detriment in moments. My biggest con to date was when (at the age of sixteen or so) I entered a pie-baking contest at a friends' huge Memorial Day picnic. Imagine it: fifteen or twenty home-schooled girls lining up their pie dishes to be judged by a handful of old men who just wanted their fill of free (mostly excellent) pie. I gave into ambition and tried sprinkling the egg wash over my berry pie with cane sugar before baking. The sugar, of course, burned spectacularly. Not burned quite to the point of being inedible, but burned quite to the point of being mahogany which, I am positive Paul Hollywood would abhor.

There was no time (or inclination - I've always been against pie-baking. There's something annoying about the process of making a crust which never quite makes up for the fun of decorating your pie.) for a rematch so I put my handwriting to good use:

triple berry pie with caramelized crust

I wrote it ostentatiously with a stubborn little flourish of my pen. I'd cast their good taste into question and then, of course, if they'd never heard of a "caramelized crust" it was up to them to accept mine, or admit ignorance. What I thought was going to happen, I'm not sure. I just knew that I had no time left and that I meant to enter that ridiculous contest if it was the last thing I did. The con worked.
I won first place.
"Triple berry pie with caramelized crust, eh?" the shrewdest judge repeated, winking at me. I remember steeling my nerves, pulling my dignity together, and taking my ribbon away with me so as not to have to watch him watch me with a very comprehending look in his goggly eyes.

Back to Paul Hollywood. Paul Hollywood knows. I mean he knows that there is no such thing as a mahogany colored caramelized crust. And I know just how it would go if Paul Hollywood had been judging that long-ago pie contest instead of gold-toothed Mr. J:

P.H.: "What have you baked for us?"
Me: "A triple-berry pie with caramelized crust."
P.H.: "Caramelized? It's burnt." *turns pie to camera. Lifts edge with pie-server fussily.* "You can see right there on the edge, it's burnt."
Me: *avoids looking into his scathing blue eyes* "Yes, chef."
P.H.: "You know what you did wrong, don't you?"
Me: *nurses third-degree burns* "It's the sugar."
P.H.: "Yes, it's the sugar. You can't put sugar into an egg wash of an unbaked pie. It'll burn long before the pie is finished." *releases pie server with a poignant clang and a smouldering look into my eyes to cement the idea that sugar on pie-crust is a no-go.*

I don't find him handsome; I find him terrifying and stern and so so knowing. In that world - the world of The Great British Baking Show, the world of Paul Hollywood and his skin-flaying eye contact - I would probably never have won first prize for that con-artist pie. And then again, I have the feeling Paul Hollywood has probably bluffed a lot through his life. And now he's worth a reported 10 million pounds. So there. All I lack is the silver goatee and killing glare. And an actual knowledge of the science behind why certain things work and others should never be attempted. But till that day...I'll bake and bluff on. The worst that can happen is a temporary, spectacular failure. That is, until another more spectacular one takes its place. But there is a certain adrenaline in learning as you go and I can say with honesty that I've got to understand quite a lot of the science by trial, error, and a lot of reading and testing. Here then is my favorite pie crust recipe, far removed from those self-righteous days when I advertised a burned pie as something chic and stole first place. I've never seen this crust fail and it's got to such a state that we never use any other. Flaky, golden, holds-up perfection. Your pie-crust woes might just be over. That is, as long as you hold the sugar.

Perfect Pie Crust 
makes one 9" double crust

2 cups all purpose flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into small chunks
1 egg, lightly beaten
2-3 Tablespoons ice cold water
1 Tablespoon white vinegar

1.) In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. With only your very fingertips, cut in the butter until your mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
2.) Mix together egg, vinegar, and two Tablespoons of the ice water in small measuring cup. Make a well in the center of your dry mix and then mix together quickly with a wooden spoon. Add remaining water if necessary.
3.) Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for an hour before use.

Tarragon Chicken Salad + Beach Picnic

Do you ever just want to get away from everything and go someplace with water, sun, sand, and food? I do. And I'm always grateful in these moments that A) I have friends to hie away with and B) that I live on hour from Virginia Beach. One of the best bits of Virginia (particularly the portion I was born and raised in) is that no matter where you go there is always an ocean beach, a river beach, a bay beach, or some form of water by which to have a picnic (the downside is that your picnics are almost always accompanied by sand in your food, but let's leave out the fact that I spent a long time this afternoon wondering whether the gritty feeling in my bread was sand or poppy-seeds. Decisions.). On this particular day we were definitely being chased by a storm but the water at Sandbridge was exceptionally clear and aquamarine-colored and until we totally began to turn into little sand-covered popsicles, we enjoyed the waves, the dolphins right off-shore, and the fact that everyone else had all but left the beach to us alone. Eventually the looming clouds and dropping temperatures drove us off the beach without having gained much of a tan, but we were so glad for the fresh air and bracing water. At least I was. The others wrapped up in the blankets we had brought. Our picnic fare was very simple (it followed a massive and late brunch): fresh strawberry slab pie (crust, my recipe which I'll share soon; filling adapted from this recipe in Country Living), dill pickles, and this tarragon chicken salad. I'm a huge fan of chicken salad when made properly. This variety is a little fresher and simpler than usual: it starts with a slow-roasted chicken (you can off-set this time commitment by buying a whole rotisserie-style chicken), then adds fresh tarragon and a basic sauce of Greek yogurt, orange juice, and a little apple cider vinegar. Just smear a little butter on some slices of bread, fill the sandwiches, throw them in a cooler bag, and head to the beach!

Tarragon Chicken Salad
serves 6-8
(for the roast chicken)
1 whole plain chicken, uncooked
1/4 cup olive oil
2 limes
1 orange
1/2 bunch fresh tarragon
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup water
1 rotisserie-style chicken

(for the chicken salad)
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
juice of 1 orange
salt & pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 bunch fresh tarragon

1.) for the chicken - heat oven to 300 degrees F. Rinse raw chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Lay chicken breast-side down in a roasting pan. Brush olive oil completely over chicken, then squeeze limes over the chicken. In clean cavity, place lime halves and halved orange along with fresh tarragon. Split cloves of garlic and rub over skin of chicken, then place in cavity. Combine marjoram, parsley, salt, and pepper. Rub into the skin of the chicken. Pour the water into the bottom of the pan around chicken. Bake for approximately two hours (if your chicken is especially large it might take longer) occasionally basting with the juices that have run off the chicken until a thermometer stuck into the chicken reads at least 170 degrees F.
2.) When chicken is finished (or starting with bought rotisserie chicken), remove meat from the bones and chop finely. Chop fresh tarragon and add to the chicken.
3.) In a small bowl, whisk together Greek yogurt, apple cider vinegar, the juice of an orange, and salt and pepper to taste until the consistency of a creamy dressing.
4.) Add dressing to chicken and stir until desired consistency. I like mine midway between very moist and slightly dry. Chill until ready to fill sandwiches. When ready to assemble, butter slices of whole-grain or sourdough bread and fill with chicken salad. This recipe will fill at least 16 small sandwiches.

What about you? Where is your favorite place for a spring/summer escape? Where do you go for a breather and a chance to relax a bit?

Homemade Pitas - Greek Style

Heeeeeeey pretty pita breads. About six months ago my sister-in-law changed my life by making stretchy, warm pitas which she serve with Greek chicken. These pitas were nothing like the ordinary kind of pita one sometimes gets, stuffed with overly-mayonnaised chicken salad, falling apart at the seams because they're too weak to hold anything serious. Not so these pitas. They're supple and soft - the kind of wrap that shawarma is served in; the kind of wrap that means business; the kind of wrap you pull out of the skillet with your fingers, so hot you can't hold it for more than a second or two. This kind of pita is deceptively easy to make. I say "deceptive" because the kind of satisfaction that comes from making homemade pitas is majorly exaggerated from the simple amount of work that goes into it. Pitas. Who knew, right? The dip shown in the photos is an Afghani-style eggplant dip I made from a brilliantly colored cookbook. I've formed a habit of spending spare moments in Barnes & Noble, reading cookbooks and snapping pictures of the pages I want to try out. Sadly, I forgot which cookbook this particular recipe came from - open up my Notes section in the phone next time? Either way, it was similar to baba ganouj. Charred eggplant is underrated when it comes to inclusion in dips! What kinds of dip will you make to scoop up with your fresh, homemade pitas?

Homemade Greek-Style Pitas
makes app. 8 pitas

1 cup very warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon honey or sugar
1 cup whole wheat flour
1- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 Tablespoon high quality olive oil

1.) Mix together water, yeast, and sugar or honey in glass bowl. Set aside to proof, 10 minutes.
2.) In a large bowl mix together 1 cup wheat flour, 1 cup all purpose flour, and salt. Add the yeast mixture into the flour and stir well.
3.) Turn onto floured surface and knead for 6-8 minutes, until smooth and silky. Cover and allow to rise about 1 hour, till doubled.
4.) Divide dough into eight portions. Roll each portion (one at a time) into a large circle, about 1/4" thick.
5.) Heat a large cast iron skillet over med. high heat. Very lightly grease the skillet with olive oil, wiping out excess. When hot, cook pitas one at a time until blistered and golden on each side. Remove to a separate plate and cover to keep warm, though you'll probably want to eat them immediately.

Oven-Baked Scotch Eggs


I don't know if y'all are as obsessed as I am with whether or not a food is picnicable. The picnicability of foods is part of a weird set of criteria I run new foods through in my head. The requirements for a properly picnicable food are thus:
A.) Can I pack it?
B) Can I eat it cold/room temp?
C) Does it make me messy?
D) Does it require a fork/plate/trouble?
If the answers run Yes, Yes, No, No, then we've found a picnicable food. There's just something about the idea that if I wanted to run away to a pretty place to eat my food I could run away to a pretty place to eat my food. I don't know. Freedom and patriotism and picnics and all that. There are a lot of memories surrounding Scotch eggs for me. Just kidding. Not a lot of memories. Primarily one. The memory of a woman I know bringing something to an Easter morning brunch that made me actually want to eat hard-boiled eggs. There aren't many things - virtually none - that make me think boiled eggs are palatable, which is sad because can you imagine the adorableness of tiny quail eggs boiled and sliced into a salad? The cuteness. But no, evidently when you take a boiled egg and wrap it in good sausage and roll it (twice) in bread crumbs, you come out with something delicious, protein-packed, and perfectly picnicable. So for those of you who are having a hard time deciding what to bring to an Easter weekend potluck, look no further!
I "healthied" it up by using sausage from our own hogs and oven-baking instead of deep-frying the eggs when they're done. The crust was 100% as crunchy as you'd want it to be so I can avow that you'll lose nothing in the final Scotch egg product by avoiding the deep-fryer, hallelujah. I'm certain that, if you wanted, you could use gluten-free breadcrumbs rather than the classic kind, but there is the possibility it might not turn out quite as crispy as the traditional method. Try it and let me know!



Scotch Eggs (loosely adapted from Jamie Oliver)
serves 4

6 large, free-range eggs (2 beaten)
1 lb. high-quality ground sausage
2 Tablespoons chopped chives
1 small bunch parsley chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 Tablespoon horseradish mustard
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
all purpose flour, for dusting
1 cup plain breadcrumbs
1/8 cup olive oil

1.) Soft-boil the remaining four eggs (having beaten two and set aside) in a medium sized pot. Rinse in cold water and peel shells away.
2.) In one small bowl mix sausage, fresh herbs, nutmeg, mustard, salt, and pepper. In another small bowl pour in a little bit of flour. In a third small bowl (or deep plate) pour the breadcrumbs.
3.) Heat oven to 425 degrees F. On a large, rimmed baking sheet heat olive oil until shimmering. Remove tray from oven, and place scotch eggs, assembled thus: roll boiled eggs in flour and set aside. Divide the sausage evenly, then flatten into a thick disc and wrap boiled eggs in sausage, reshaping when totally covered. Roll again in flour, then dip in beaten egg, roll in breadcrumbs, dip in beaten egg, roll once more in breadcrumbs, then set on the tray.
4.) Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until golden, turning several times to evenly crisp each side of the egg. When finished, remove from tray and allow to cool. Serve at warm, at room temperature, or even chilled.

Happy Easter weekend, loves! I hope you're planning and able to spend it surrounded by friends and family. Let love be the theme of your life this weekend as we focus on when Love won out forever over Death. And hey, if you don't know my Jesus let's talk because He's crazy-amazing.

Toast: A Life Plan

When you reach your mid-twenties and are still feeling your way toward making your passions into a career, the most common question you receive on any given day from any given stranger (or family member) is: “So what do you want to do with your life?”
It is a question infallibly asked in a crumb-scattered tone and always followed with a readily disappointed smile.
Usually you pull together a semi-coherent response from the shreds of clarity spinning through the rich Silicon Valley of your brain's complex path and manage to put forth a socially acceptable response. Some dulled, calmed, sedated version of what you mean.
But I'm almost twenty-five. I want to begin to respond honestly. And by honestly I mean, I want to look my questioner square in the eye and reply:
“I plan to be more like toast.”
Sadly, people aren't well enough acquainted with toast to allow for this being a passable response. It's always this way in the world: to be given a chance at being taken seriously we must respond with the things people will understand; wanting to be more like toast isn't one of them.
But being more like toast is, to me, a life's work. To be reliable and well-loved. Trustworthy. Life-giving. Nourishing. I want the experiences and relationships of my life to flavor me like gem-tone jams and jellies. The serious business sliding on smooth like peanut butter, the hilarious moments scattered over-top like sliced strawberries or confetti sprinkles. I want to be versatile. I want to be bruschetta one night and an open-faced sandwich another. I want to be dipped in flavored oil here and spread with herbed goat cheese there. I want passion to soften me like dark chocolate heated then drizzled with olive oil – a sprinkle of fleur de sel to draw out the depth of the moment, to savor forever.
I want to taste like home. I want to sustain and to comfort. I want kindness and charity to pour through me like butter melting through the golden weave of a perfectly toasted slice of sourdough. I want to enter a room and be known for who I am: to be the same person every time; able to adapt to the nuances of a rich life without once losing my essence.
For toast, at it's heart, is toast.
You may fix your toast differently each morning, but you know that it is still toast and there's a homely delight in the knowledge. You may use a different loaf of bread...cycling through the loving names we give to all the varieties of leavened magic: rye, focaccia, whole-grain, chapati, sourdough, brioche, pumpernickel. I'm especially fond of pumpernickel – not the bread, just the name. The whimsical, devil-may-care word, pumpernickel. I want to care very little or not at all if I have a funny label or if some people don't find me to their taste. I want to be a person other people come to when they need help or a hug. I want to be what my children beg of me when we're all still half asleep on a rainy Saturday morning. On days of heartbreak or illness or sadness, I want to be “cimma-nin toast.” I don't want to be exotic and temporary and flash-in-the-pan. I want to be...I don't know...wholesome, established, genuine. I want to be the Velveteen Rabbit of women, gaining status as something real through giving myself for others. It isn't a sexy ideal. It isn't glamorous. It isn't alluring, but let's see what has lasted over the eons: Team Macaron or the multi-faceted toast genre?

So the next time a well-meaning, inquiring mind asks what I want out of life, I might throw social graces to the wind and pull a strategy from the pumpernickel playbook:

“What is my life-plan? To be a little more like toast.”

Fig Cupcakes With Goat Cheese Frosting

fig _cupcakes
    As I write up this post I'm elegantly finishing off stuffing my face with one of these cupcakes. Have you ever had an idea that is almost certainly a bad idea until you go with it anyway and then you realize it was actually a great idea? That was me and this jar of fig preserves from Trader Joe's. It was shouting to me to involve it in a cupcake situation. Figs in cupcakes? Really, Rache? And then I rounded the dairy aisle (looking for quail eggs, mind you) and found an 11 ounce log of chevre for $4.99. FOUR NINETY-NINE. If you've never paid attention to goat cheese prices you'll be disinterested to know that .50 per ounce is a practically unheard of price. So cheap I had to buy some. So I started thinking about how well figs get along with goat cheese and how goat cheese has a similar flavor to neufchatel or cream cheese and then it all sort of meshed into a "fig newton meets silky cream cheese frosting" project. So I came straight home and tried it out and holy wasp mummies, Batman, these are good. The fig preserves got mixed into the batter, dolloped into the cupcake tins, and shmeared on top. So when I say you taste the fig, I mean you taste the fig. I have this vendetta against dry cupcakes. I'm not sure whether it's the fig preserves actually occupying space in the batter that does this, but these cupcakes are so soft and moist - the only situation where this word is permitted - that even I am satisfied. I know goat cheese in frosting might seem a little out there, but it lends a sour edge to the frosting, cutting back on the dramatic sweetness of the figs. I don't like when people think of figs as purely an autumn thing. Fresh figs, of course. But I vote for preserved figs all the year round, especially in early spring when most fruits aren't in the game yet! Also, step outside your front door and forage some wild-flowers to top your cupcakes. Violets, red-bud, wild peas, wood sorrel, pansies, clover, honeysuckle, and dandelions are all edible! I promise you're not gonna die or anything if you take a second to google what you plucky before garnishing your gorgeous cupcakes! If you're looking for a fresh take on Easter dessert, this might be the boy for you. Read on!

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Fig Cupcakes With Goat Cheese Frosting
Makes 12-15 cupcakes

- for the cupcakes -

1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, separated
2/3 cups whole milk
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 small jar fig preserves, divided

- for the frosting -

1/2 cup salted butter, softened
8 ounces plain, chevre-style goat cheese
1 vanilla bean, scraped (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
1 Tablespoon whole milk
3-4 cups powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

to make cupcakes:

1.) Beat softened butter with sugar until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add in egg yolks and 3 Tablespoons of fig preserves.
2.) In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Alternating with the milk, add dry ingredients to butter mixture and beat well.
3.) In a small glass bowl whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold gently into the cake batter so as not to break down the egg whites.
4.) Line cupcake tin with paper liners and fill cups 2/3 of the way full. Dollop a dab of fig preserves into the center of each - the batter will rise and cover most of it.
5.) Bake at 350 degrees F. for approximately 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

to make frosting: 

1.) Whip butter and goat cheese together with vanilla bean until smooth and creamy. Add in milk, powdered sugar, and salt and beat until fluffy. If needed, add more powdered sugar, but don't over-do it. This is a soft frosting.
2.) Pipe onto cupcakes, then smear additional fig preserves on top. Garnish to suit your fancy.

Shrimp & Sun-Dried Tomatoes With Angel Hair Pasta


One of my earliest memories of cooking with any of my extended family surrounds cooking angel hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and shrimp with my Grandma June. She had just moved from California to our little neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I remember wondering when the moving truck would come and what might be inside, and being disappointed that she didn't have more interesting belongings when it did. I remember viewing with suspicion the shrimp (tails on) and the weird, wrinkly tomatoes. Since when did tomatoes look like raisins? Since when had anyone heard of olive oil? Friends, these were the margarine years. The years when I somehow thought it was a good idea to sneak fingerfuls of margarine from the "belly button" of the Country Crock tub and to hear Mama sing,
"Naughty pussy-cat, you know better than that. You have butter on your whiskers, naughty pussy-cat!"
I view margarine with horror now and believe olive oil to be a food of the demigods, but there was a day. Grandma June requisitioned one grandchild a week to dance attendance at the grocery store, gathering the mystic things necessary for the one night a week she came over to cook dinner at our house. Sometimes it was a peculiar but somehow-delicious pea soup thick enough to stun a codfish with. Other times it was corned beef and cabbage. Or she'd buy Captain D's. Or mall Japanese which (honestly) is the best-tasting thing on Planet Earth. Once or twice she even treated us to homemade cioppino and all I could do was marvel at the fact I was eating baby octopus and crack dumb jokes about mussels. Grandma June was from a different era, and a different culture. While thoroughly American, she'd entrenched herself so wholly in the California manner of eating fresh and local and whole foods (and yet maintains an unreasonable fondness for junk food as well). Being born in 1929, Grandma June spent a good portion of her adult life in the culture Julia Child fought so hard to counteract: the convenient, pre-packaged, soulless feed-lot food of the 1950's and 60's. So it is only in the last year that I've come to realize how revolutionary her preferences for the farm-to-table life were, both to her era and to my little grade-school world. In recent years, her mind has lost most of its ability to create and store memories, and she no longer is capable of cook complex meals in the kitchen. But I think I'll always remember her as a spry 72 year old, commandeering the stove with a brand of chaotic drama that could only belong to a dry, spry California woman long-accustomed to her independence. This dish, then, is my recreation of my favorite of the meals she marshaled in our tiny town-house kitchen to the music of our super-enthusiastic smoke alarm.







Shrimp & Sundried Tomatoes With Angel Hair Pasta
comfortably serves 4-6

3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
2 Tbs. lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. angel hair pasta
1 lb. raw shrimp
1 teaspoon dried parsley, or 1 Tablespoon fresh
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup butter
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss cooked pasta with a splash of olive oil or pat of butter. Set aside and keep warm.
  2. In a large skillet saute crushed garlic until golden. Add shrimp and cook until shrimp are pink and translucent. Remove shrimp from pan.
  3. Add lemon juice, zest, sun-dried tomatoes, and remaining olive oil to pan. Cook until tomatoes are softened. Add butter and melt, then add in parsley. Stir contents of skillet until well incorporated, then add in the shrimp. Toss to coat.
  4. Serve over angel-hair pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese or fresh parsley and a wedge of lemon.
Do you have any very clear memories of cooking with your grandparents? What did you make together? Leave a comment and let's talk about it. Have you ever tried to recreate any of the dishes? I'd love to know.