Faking It.

I feel that I am at a point in my culinary education where my brain has stopped taking in recipes. As a person who rarely follows them, when I do “use” a recipe it’s only as a jumping point for whatever I feel like doing or creating a variation using whatever it is I have to use up–I’m looking at you truckload of turnips that just won’t stop. I’m now moving into a place where I simply repeat the demonstrated steps & otherwise go by instinct. However, with my ever present need for perfection, I then do a lot of second guessing–rarely with positive results.

Thus, upon our next assignment, I had a bit of panick. We were to draft a recipe–one that we enjoyed and often made at home–in the style of our textbook. The only recipes I generally repeat are the simplest ones–ones where you’d rather not cook, but you should eat at home because you can’t affored the price or calories of eating out…i.e. not suitable for impressing anyone.

And so, I approached the assignment from a different perspective: a method I enjoy and frequently use at home–the use of csa items from last week that I had better use before they turn. This week it was butternut squash and red delicious apples. But wait: conundrum. Butternut squash soup is kind of passe, maybe a little boring, so I had to enliven it somehow. Since I’ve made several variations of said potage, I was up for the challenge of making a new one & trusted my gut that it would work. It did. By roasting the squash first, the earthy, caramel sweetness of the squash shines through. An addition of star anise throws in a different, unexpected flavor, providing a counterpoint to the earthy and the addition of chicken stock provides a heartiness that water or vegetable stock might not.

Of course, a properly Frenchified soup wouldn’t be a properly Frenchified soup without some garniture. Luckily we’d had grits that morning for breakfast & because of an excess of grity goodness had been prepared (totally by accident….totally…) grit croutons were my go-to decoration.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Grit Croutons

For the Soup
700 g butternut squash (about 1 large) or other winter squash,
       skinned and cut in large dice
2 medium sweet apples, skinned & cut in mirepoix
1 medium red onion, cut in mirepoix
500 mL chicken stock
20 g butter
20 g olive oil
10 g brown sugar
1 star anise
10 g (½ t) Ceylon cinnamon
Salt and Pepper, to taste

For the Croutons
240 mL water
240 mL milk
120 g instant grits
30 g butter
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
Oil, for frying

For the Soup

  1. Preheat oven to 375F. Toss squash with olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and star anise and spread in a single layer on a sheet tray. Place in the preheated oven and roast until tender and starting to brown (about 30 minutes), tossing once during cooking.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepot. Sweat onions for about 1 minute. Add apples and sweat, covered until soft. Remove the lid and allow the collected liquid to evaporate and begin to develop sucs on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Making sure to reserve the star anise, place roasted squash with apples and onions in a blender, adding just enough stock to puree.
  4. Return puree to saucepan along with star anise and brown sugar. Add enough stock to reach desired consistency. Bring to a simmer and cook on low for 10 minutes. Adjust seasoning and remove star anise. Keep warm for service.

 For the Croutons & Service

  1. Bring water and milk to a boil, immediately whisk in grits and ½ t salt. Bring back to boil, reduce heat and cook at a very low simmer, covered, until thick, whisking occasionally to avoid lumps.
  2. Once it is very thick, about 10 minutes, whisk in butter and nutmeg, plus an aggressive amount of salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  3. Pour grits into a 9X3 pan and allow to cool. Once cool, turn grits out onto a board and slice into 1-cm cubes.
  4. Bring oil to 350F and fry grit cubes until golden. Drain on a paper towel. Serve soup in hot bowls, garnished with croutons.


I didn’t win. My former victory has been tarnished by sad defeat.

At least my detailing was noticed, as the judges heralded the unparalleled beauty of my pie. I overheard one judge whispering to another in doubt that I’d made the apple chips that garnished the top (I had). I think my downfall came in the form of palates not accustomed to the heavy amount of cinnamon I’d used to honor the pie’s of my ancestors (i.e. my great grandmother’s fried apple pie filling).

Still, if you ask me, my pie was über delicious. My opinion as to why the winning pie conquered: it was served still warm, fresh from the oven. Kudos to you, friend baker–this round is yours, but next year, the jig is up!

As for my creation, what I learned from myriad apple tastings was that flavors of apples vary from farm to farm. A.K.A., the Galas from Red Jacket Orchards taste nothing like the Galas from Migliorelli Farm. For my test pies, I ended up combining scraps from the latest tasting. The (not surprising) revelation here is that using multiple varieties of apples elicits a more complex flavor & because I was making a smashed apple pie, the texture wasn’t of great concern. The conclusion: don’t feel bad about buying one of each variety available to you. Hold your own, secret tasting and then use the bulk to make a pie for the family who loves you:

Shmapple (Smashed Apple) Pie with Pumpkin-Oat Streusel

For the Filling
3 ½ lbs. of apples, peeled and diced (a good mix works best here. I used Winesap, Gala, Empire, Mutsu & Keepsake)
1/3 cup Apple Cider
2 tablespoons Butter
¼ cup Granulated Sugar
pinch of Salt

1 tablespoon Cinnamon (I used 2 tsp. of Ceylon and 1 tsp. of Cassia, but whatever you have will work)
1 tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 tablespoon Cognac

For the Topping
2 cups finely diced Pumpkin (from 3 lb. sugar pumpkin)
1 cup Rolled Oats
¼ cup Butter, melted
pinch of Salt
½ teaspoon Cinnamon
½ cup Brown Sugar
2 tablespoons Flour
1 teaspoon Lemon Zest

Prepare the Filling
In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, slightly brown the butter over medium heat. Toss in the apples, cider, sugar and salt and, with the lid on, bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat until the mix starts to look very juicy. Remove the lid and keep the apples on a low simmer, stirring occasionally until they become very thick. (Some of your apples will break down on their own; others you might have to coax with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon.) This could take anywhere from 30-60 minutes, depending on the juiciness of your apples (mine actually took about 3 hours, because I let it cook very slowly, while I did other things around the house). When it’s somewhere between applesauce and apple butter, you’re there. You should be able to drag a wooden spoon through it and the ‘dam’ should almost hold. Take it off the heat and add the last three ingredients. Set aside. At this point you can taste it. If you think it needs to be sweeter, add more sugar, if you think it’s too sweet, add a bit more lemon. If you think it needs more complexity, maybe add a few dashes of Angostura bitters (which I did).

Prepare the Topping
Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside.

Build your Pie
Use your favorite pie crust recipe or this one (minus the coconut) for the bottom crust, adding ½ tsp. of cinnamon to the dry ingredients and substituting Cognac for the Rum & Apple Cider for the water/coconut water.

Fill the bottom crust with the prepared apples and spread evenly. Gently scatter the topping over the entire pie. Bake in a 400º oven for approximately 35-40 minutes, until the crust is browned and the pumpkin has begun to caramelize. Let cool before slicing.

isn’t it just supposed to be one a day?

So, when I went to the Greenmarket on Sunday to gather apples for a few sample tarts, I was met with four varieties that hadn’t been there the previous weekend.

When I go to Union Square tomorrow there will be more still, but I decided I couldn’t in good conscience make the best pie without knowing if any of these new apples before me would be a better option. Thus, I picked up one of each + a few of the variety I’d chosen for my pie (more on that later).

Based on it’s mostly dark red skin (with minimal yellow striations), this apple was surprisingly tart and crisp! In fact, it looked so much like it could only provide a lame-o Red Delicious mush fest that I almost didn’t bother to pick it up. Luckily, it’s smooth and shiny exterior gave way to beautiful bright white flesh and a crunchy sweet/tart bite. This would be fantastic on a cheese plate or loaded up with peanut butter or, I think, amazing in a traditional layered apple pie.

The first apple in this week of tastings that I can genuinely say has a complex flavor, the cox-orange is an heirloom apple. It’s very sour, but with a sweet backbone–reminiscent of sour-apple candy. As the name suggests, the skin bears an orangish-red hue and is quite speckled–like Seurat painted an apple, it came to life and now I get to eat it! The bite isn’t the most pleasant–not mushy per se, though not crisp either–however, the flavor is so interesting, that I didn’t really mind.

Another heirloom variety, this is apparently one of the oldest apples still being grown. I must say, if the choice of which apples to grow were based on my opinion, Georgian England could have this one back. The skin is very similar to that of a Bosc pear being cracked apart by the shiny green apple within, i.e. kind of neat. The flavor…like a Bosc pear, but with an unfortunate soapy aftertaste, i.e. not so neat. So, while it’s not terrible, I’d rather just have a pear–and then not feel like, following my snack, I’ve washed out my filthy, 1750’s mouth.

Whomever named this apple had a good sense of irony. A keepsake is something you treasure; this apple is something you should put back down. OK, so I’m being overly harsh–it actually has a very complex flavor and could add punch to a baked apple medley, but you don’t want to eat it alone. The taste is best described as fermented (a fellow taster’s first reaction was, “Shrimp Paste!”) and it left a powdery feeling in my mouth. Also, when sliced through the core, it looks like a butterfly…sort of.

Those are my takes at least. Perhaps you have a differing opinion? In my research I came across this awesome site, in case you want to look up a few other varieties. For now, I’m biding my time until the contest day arrives. Decisions have been made. Test pies have been baked and eaten. Surprises were revealed. Tune in next time for my Eve-tempting revelations. Same apple time; same apple channel.

apparently, i’m a glutton…

for pie contests. This weekend I entered myself into another one.

My neighborhood Greenmarket is hosting an apple pie bake-off in 2 weeks; so, inspired by my recent victory, I decided to go for it.

Then I realized, I’ve never made an apple pie–it’s just never been one of my favorites (unless we’re talking fried apple hand pies). So, I’m currently brainstorming ways to make an apple pie interesting. Those ideas are yet to come, but today I’m sharing with you my findings upon an impromptu apple tasting.

The one stipulation for the contest is that the apples must be local. Thus, I grabbed one of each variety available from Red Jacket Orchards and headed home to savor the flavor:

This apple sports a smooth and shiny skin in a melange of green and red–It looks like it came straight out of the that painting you did at the rec center in 1992. Unfortunately, that beautiful skin is super chewy. The flesh is slightly tart, almost lemony; but, beyond that isn’t incredibly flavorful. The texture: not really crisp but not really mushy either. All in all, a boring apple.

A smaller specimen, with skin a bit rougher to the touch, the Gala is mostly red, bespeckled yellow. The flavor here is unmistakably floral. It’s sweet, it’s crunchy and from a first glance point of view would be fantastic cooked down into a puree. Though it’s flesh has a yellowish cast–read, not as pretty as the bright white of others–this apple is certainly one of the most delicious.

The big boy, Pippin, is a promising apple. The skin somewhere between a shiny Granny Smith and matte Golden Delicious, a light green that gives way to a slight red blush, dare I say it’s a demure apple? When sliced it greets you with bright flesh sporting a green aura. Then you bite. Your sweet, genteel apple slaps you in the face. It was all a sham. Sour. Mushy. Absolutely terrible. Next weekend I might suggest they stop growing it. Seriously.

The best way to sum up the apple we all know is to say it tastes like an apple. It’s what apple-flavored candy tastes like. It’s tart, it’s sweet, the texture is crisp–though almost creamy–which is a weird description, but it’s true. Also, this particular apple is totally one of the coolest apples ever–check out the abstract expressionism going on with that skin! Not a common feature, but a fortuitous one (if you like abstract expressionism).

Golden Supreme
Surprise! The Golden Supreme has yellow skin. I know you’re shocked. It also has yellowish flesh and is exceedingly crisp. This beauty tastes like apple juice. Obviously related to Golden Delicious (a common baking apple) the G. Supreme will definitely hold up to cooking–perhaps in a pie–but would probably need some flavor boosters. I suggest ginger.

Paula Red
Another big loser. The Paula Red, so cute in its diminutiveness has the toughest skin of these seven contenders. It’s also completely mushy and has no apple flavor. There is, however, a slight essences of dirt; so, if you’re geophagic, good news for you!

Honey Crisp
This apple is stupid delicious. It’s refreshing–and after consuming practically two pounds of apples, that’s saying something. There is a perfect balance of sweetness to tart and it is fantastically crisp. It’s juicy, it’s plump–really it’s everything you want an apple to be. If only it came with its own cheese plate…

Of course, after my apple overdose, I received my Basis delivery and there were more apples to try–Jonagold and Fuji–I haven’t given them the full inspection, so won’t report on them just yet.

As for now, any thoughts on apples or apple pies are appreciated. My second victory lap is just around the corner…