Gala Apple Pie

Look at this apple pie. Isn’t it gorgeous? I baked it! Even though I made this pie weeks ago, I dedicate this post to the upcoming Fourth of July holiday weekend because so few things are as American as apple pie.

The inspiration came from the suddenly tall and prolific Gala apple tree that grows in my parents’ backyard in Orange County. I collected the ones that fell off and used them for this apple pie.

Mind you it’s not recommended to use Gala apples for pie because they are softer than other varieties and will become mushy after baking. But I didn’t care one bit. They still produced a wonderful appley filling that went well with the buttery crust.

Speaking of the crust, I don’t know what happened but it came out magically well this time. Lord knows I’ve made plenty of pie crusts before and labored to get it right but for some reason this one was particularly tender and flaky. My favorite pie dough recipe is a very simple one by chef Jacques Pepin. As mentioned in a previous post, you don’t have to resort to Crisco for a good crust. In butter, we trust! An exceptional tool for making easy fool-proof pie crust is a food processor. If you have one, I highly recommend using it to mix your dough.

Another factor in this recent pie dough success could be the egg wash. I mixed one egg yolk with about two tablespoons of heavy cream and brushed it on top of the raw crust. An egg wash creates a glossy golden glaze that instantly transforms a pasty-looking pie to an elegant dessert. I mean, just look at it!

Nothing beats a classic apple pie. Nothing beats the spicy, cidery aroma of apples baking with sugar and cinnamon in a pocket of buttery dough. The smell just permeates the entire house and drives you crazy. Then you end up cutting a slice too early before it cools and the filling spills out all over the place. This happened to me so folks, be patient when you take the pie out of the oven. Let the filling cool and set. I know it’s irresistible but try.

A cooling apple pie. Can you see the steam rising?

Strawberry Jam Session

It’s been about a week or so since I cooked up a batch of strawberry jam and I am still amazed I actually did it.

It all started when I bought three baskets of strawberries at the La Jolla Farmers market one Sunday. I spent eight dollars on those babies because they looked so dark and ripe. Now I know better. Dark berries will be quite ripe, but not necessarily more sweet and certainly not any more fresh. When I got home and washed the soft berries, I realized they were going to spoil within two days, tops. It was so disappointing! I tried to think of ways to salvage the situation and realized I could cook them down, the way people did before refrigeration days. I thought, I could preserve them somehow! Then cue light bulb — I could make jam! It’s something I’ve always wanted to try and the inner pioneer girl in me screamed, “yes, try. You’ve got to!”

So I tried, and LO and BEHOLD, the strawberries actually jelled and turned to jam. While the entire affair was a lot easier than I thought it would be, the initial dive into the project was very challenging. The more I read about making jam, the more it seemed like a horribly arduous task. There are all sorts of instructions on sanitizing jars in boiling hot water, dipping the metal spoon in the same boiling water, using pectin, using underripe berries, etc. I eventually modified a simpler recipe I read here.

This is what you do:

Wash, hull, and halve each strawberry (I had about two pints of berries). Toss them in a pot and simmer on high heat with about one cup of sugar. Cook until sugar dissolves. Lower the heat a tad and continue to cook and stir. Many recipes call for pectin, but some quick google research told me cooking the fruit in sugar alone will get it going. Like magic, the fruit started to thicken and become jammy. After testing it, I poured it in a glass pickling jar that I bought at a World Market. Once it cooled down, I tasted it and was awe-struck by how similar it was to, you know, jam you buy at the store.

The carnage! Be advised: don't wear your best shirt while cooking jam.

I so expected an incredible jam failure but everything turned out to be OK. There’s an odd thrill in making your own jam. Perhaps it’s the resourcefulness of it all. I am not sure how long my jam will last, as I was not very careful with the sanitizing process. Properly prepared preserves can last months. But it’s not like I was canning the summer strawberries for the long winter. I was going for the experience. And, I could probably still slather some on hot buttered biscuits within the next few weeks.

Strawberry Water

There is a sudden influx of strawberries at the markets lately, have you noticed?  I bought some just yesterday and as I cut a few up to munch on this afternoon, the aroma of the beautiful berries wafting up to my nose, I suddenly remembered one of the best strawberry experiences I’ve had, ever: strawberry water.

This recipe is from none other than my dad, who long ago whipped up this simple, delicate drink one hot summer day when I was a young child. I recall that very day, when there happened to be no soda, juice or other interesting soft drinks around the house. My brother and I clamored for something sweet, you know — that little something you crave on a sweltering day. Miraculously, my dad proceeded to make a wonderful bowl of sweet water infused with strawberries.

He sliced a few strawberries — you don’t even need that many — and added them to a big glass bowl filled with water, ice, and plenty of sugar. My brother and I watched with a fair amount of skepticism. Just water and those few slices of strawberries? What’s that gonna do? Still, we watched. Stir, stir, stir is all he did. Slowly, the sugar dissolved and the juice from the sliced strawberries mingled with the water, coloring it an oh-so-pale pink. He stirred some more, gave it to us in a cup and ALAS — how divine it was! I decided to try it for myself and here it is.

Mind you, this is not a strawberry drink; it truly is a flavored water. So if you’re imagining something robust, then this recipe is not for you. The strawberry flavor is very soft, which I think makes it all the more appealing.

All you need is a bowl of water, about five sliced strawberries, and sugar. Stir together until the water turns pink. I found myself smashing the strawberries with a ladle to coax the juices a bit. Measure your sugar to taste. You’ll likely need to put a fair amount of sugar, as that’s what makes this so tasty. Pour over ice and enjoy! Ideal for warm days, sitting out in the sun.

Panettone Bread Pudding

I never thought I was a bread pudding fan…until now.

You might notice these posts are somewhat…Christmasy? That’s because I baked these delights during the holidays and only now — yes forgive me — am I posting about them. I was looking through my pictures and couldn’t resist posting these latest baking adventures, even as February is just around the corner. But who says you can’t have bread pudding all-year-round? Right. So let’s get cookin.

I’ve always wanted to make bread pudding out of panettone, an Italian dessert bread served during Christmas and other celebrations. It is just the right bread for it: eggy like a brioche…fragrant with orange…and it already contains delectable dried fruit pieces.

First, obtain your loaf. They’re abundant during Christmas but I bet you can find it at your local World Market any time of the year. If you can’t find panettone, brioche or even Hawaiian Bread works too. Bread pudding works best when the bread is stale and on the dry side. First, cut it up in 1 1/2 pieces.

The recipe I used asked to toast it as well, so I did.  You can see some pieces got a little burned but it didn’t matter. In fact, I think it added a nuttier touch.

Next, mix your custard. Bread pudding is essentially bread soaked in a nice, rich custard that is baked into a dessert. It actually tastes similar to and has the same texture as French toast.

Beat eggs with whole milk or even half-and-half, as I’ve seen in some recipes. Add some flavoring. I added vanilla and almond extracts, though I probably didn’t have to, since panettone is already very aromatic, especially of orange. But that didn’t stop me from adding more orange peel!

A note about the Microplane:
The black-handled tool you see here, is by far one of my favorite kitchen tools of all time. I use the zest of a citrus fruit almost every time I bake and with a microplane, you get a beautiful heap of very fine lemon or orange zest within seconds. Easy breezy. Getting that zest isn’t a simple task if you don’t have this handy tool. It is a must-have item if you cook. It’s also a great tool for grating cheese for your sauces and salads. Get your Microplane now!

Add the zest to the custard and beat until well combined. Pour over the toasted bread and let it soak for and hour, ideally overnight if you have time. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about an hour. The custard-soaked bread puffs up so nicely!

Once cooled, cut into large squares and serve warm. Enjoy.

Use What You Have: Blueberry Brownies

Months ago around the holidays, I was inspired to try this recipe after reading about it online. Plus, I just happened to have a bag of frozen blueberries in the freezer. How serendipitous! Recipe can be found here. Enjoy with a tall glass of milk.

By the by, I used ground cloves instead of cinnamon. Not sure if adding spices enhances the brownies, as I found it a bit strange. But adding any sort of spice seems to instantly holiday-ify a dessert. It was fitting back in December when I made these but since the holidays are over, I’m sure you could skip out on the cinnamon if you don’t have any.