I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: America’s Test Kitchen has a bug in my oven.

I wanted to make an apple pie, the next day’s episode was all about apples. I wondered how to make my pie crust better, Christopher Kimball took time a week later to give me the step-by-steps. The latest not so subtle usurpation of my genius: a sweet cream/cultured butter test.

A few months ago I penned an article for a writing course in which I was enrolled. Shocked though I was that such a test didn’t exist I thought it an appropriate subject for the assignment at hand. I would have loved a wider reaching test, but limits had to be set.

At any rate, you can find ATK’s findings here, and I’ll repost my article below, for comparison’s sake.

I’ve got your number, Christopher Kimball–and apparently, you’ve got my address…

A Little Butter Now & Then

Pie. It’s currently all the rage. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s delicious, its flavors are myriad and, as the saying goes, there’s nothing quite as easy.  A dessert so versatile—fruity, creamy, nutty, even meaty—what truly gives a pie its identity is the crust. A buttery, flaky vehicle for goodness, crust will make or break a perfect pie. And butter will make or break a perfect crust.

While some believe that using only the best ingredients will result in success, my Southern grandmother often used the cheapest. When I’ve tried to improve upon her recipes, employing fancier alternatives, my results have been anything but successful. So, I started to wonder about the butter I use in my pie crust—with European-styles increasingly available, would using this fancier fat improve my pastry? A taste test was in order.

 I set up just two ground rules: any butter included in my test must be widely available and of the unsalted variety. I’ve stayed true to Land O’Lakes for years; now, whenever I went into a store, I bee-lined to the dairy case to see what brands were carried. A very informal poll of friends and relatives in remote locations helped to set focus on the top three contenders: Land O’Lakes, Breakstone’s and Kerrygold (one of those aforementioned Euro-styles). To give each a fair chance, I decided to experiment with more than just pie crust. And so it was that the great butter tasting of 2011 began.

 A troupe of butter enthusiasts settled in for a blind tasting of three preparations. To begin, unadorned, spread on white toast. Immediately I noticed the golden hue of Kerrygold (KG), more vivid than the pallid Breakstone’s (BR) and Land O’Lakes (LOL)—a feature I thought exuded richness yet made one of my tasters exclaim, “This one definitely looks the scariest…” The winner here was clearly LOL. Its flavor was more pungent than the others and left a lingering aroma in the mouth. BR meanwhile had a pleasant mouth feel but left some thinking its taste synthetic, almost like margarine. As a cultured butter one would expect KG to be the most pungent of the three—not so. Wrapped in foil, the only real comment on flavor was that, “It tastes like a wrapper.” Another comment, likely due to the higher butterfat content of Euro butters: “I feel like it’s waxing my mouth.” Unless you’ve run out of lip balm, not a pleasant sensation.

 My second test was from Bon Appétit Sept. 2007: “Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter.” Again, KG was “greasy” and unpleasant on the lips. Seemingly the saltiest, it lacked a complexity and roundness that one expects from butter. BR, while oiler in appearance, fared much better for taste with a sweetness not present in the others. As for my old stand-by, LOL gave one of my tasters, “a delayed butter reaction,” reiterating the lingering aroma from the toast competition. While the LOL sauce was the most homogenous, BR landed on top due to a better marriage of flavors between earthy sage and bright lemon.

My third, and final test: “Best-Ever Pie Crust” (Bon Appétit July 2007). A blind-baked, empty shell would serve focus to the flavor and texture of our star. LOL went first eliciting a strong butter flavor—and a markedly strong salt flavor. The crust however was more crumbly than flaky and overly greasy, leaving fingertips slick and a noticeable smudge on the plate. My beloved had failed me. On to the BR, which provided better flavor: a tangy bite without the overpowering salt of LOL. Greasiness wasn’t a problem either, the pastry felt soft and delicate, still crumbly, but less so. Finally KG. With low hopes due to its previous performances I sliced the crust. It held together! Though crumblage was minimal, reactions were evenly split. Some thought it “cakey” and that it tasted like a croissant. I found it doughy, raw tasting. Each crust prepared the same, the higher butterfat surely slowed the browning process, resulting in a less toasty crust.

 In the end, there was no clear champion. My suggestion: keep a stick of each for their varying strengths—or go for the BR as it, at least, was never offensive. As for me, a passion for pure butter goodness continues. Although maybe I’ll put the butter aside and work on a filling for that leftover crust—did someone say coconut cream?



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.

The best thing about wine tastings…

Is that no one under the age of 21 can be admitted.

The worst thing is that people can be annoying at any age. But at least when they’re adults you don’t have to pretend to care or think it’s cute when they get in your way and almost cause you to take a tumble.

For the most part though, the 2011 NYC Wine and Food Festival Grand Tasting (which I attended this past Saturday) was a smashing success. I had a lovely time with my mother–once we managed to rise above the incompetence of the myriad volunteers. However, for edification’s sake, I do have some notes for volunteers of the future:

1.) You are a volunteer. Figure out what the event, for which you are volunteering, is.

2.) Direct people, upon arrival, to the event location instead of letting them mill about in what turns out to be the free-to-anyone area.

The Pith Zester's mother, getting a free, autographed copy of Ming Tsai's new cookbook

3.) When there are only 2 presentation stages, know where they are.

4.) You are a volunteer. Please continue to volunteer your time to assist those who have paid to be there. The tasting tables are not for your grazing; they are for ours.

The next few rules are more for attendees:

5.) When there are obvious, seperate bottleneck areas and relaxation/gathering areas, don’t corral your group of 5 in the middle of the bottleneck area, causing greater traffic headache.

6.) Keep walking. She’ll find you.

7.) Don’t hold seats for people who have gone to the bathroom when you know very well that to get to the bathroom–Port-a-Johns, outside and across the street–and back will take at least 20 minutes.

8.) Don’t drink so much wine that you end up being that guy sitting behind me at the final presentation who asked ridiculous, attention seeking questions.

9.) Don’t drink so much wine that you end up being that girl sitting behind me at the final presentation who kept screaming, “WOOO! THAI-LAND!” every time Andrew Zimmern mentioned said nation.

Other than that, it was pretty standard fare. We entered about thirteen bajillion raffles & there was some seriously delicious food: Strip over Roasted Acorn Squash from BLT Prime, Lobster Scrambled Eggs with Trout Roe and Creme Fraiche with Brioche Toast from Highpoint Bistro & Bar, Truffeled Polenta with Fried Quail Egg from reBar, and Golden Tomato Soup–which we loved–and then realized it was just the new Campbell’s…and much, much more.

We also watched several presentations: Rocco DiSpirito shilling his new, ‘you too can eat low-fat Italian food!’ cookbook, then Paula Deen with hubby Michael Groover–purely for entertainment purposes–her food was/is the dreck–though she did bring out, and subsequently sexually harass, Robert Irvine. Next, Giada DeLaurentis brought people on stage to cook ‘with her’ then left them alone at the stove top and did nothing but vaguely answer audience questions–I will applaud her for one thing, however: when asked if she would be writing a toddler friendly cookbook she answered that she would not as she believes children should eat the same thing the adults are eating. Good for her. Lastly, Andrew Zimmern–probably the least known cook in the bunch–gave the best presentation of the day with the most appetising food, despite the hecklers. WOO! THAI-LAND!

Visit Andrew Zimmern’s website for Lamb Dumplings from Mongolia, “Porcupine” Balls from China or Gai Tom Kha, a coconut chicken soup from Thailand

the greatest reward

…is sharing my pie recipe with you

The judges, still amazed at how great a pie could be.

1 1/4 cups AP Flour
1/2 t. salt
1T sugar
2T flaked coconut
5T unsalted butter, cubed and frozen
5T vegetable shortening, cubed and frozen
2T coconut rum
2T coconut water + 1T coconut water
1 egg

Some tasters, wondering if anything could ever be as good as that Coconut Cream Pie with Salted Coconut shavings. The two in the background are totally arguing about it; the two in the foreground are resigned that no, no it can't.

4 large or 5 medium egg yolks
1/3 cup self-rising flour
3/4 cup sugar
14 oz. can coconut milk
1/4 cup half & half
pinch of salt
1 t vanilla
1/2 t coconut rum
1 T Cognac
1 1/2 T lemon juice
2 T butter

4-5 egg whites (the whites from however many eggs you used above)
pinch of salt
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup coconut water
1/2 t vanilla
1 t coconut rum

In a food processor (although you could do this part by hand, with a fork) pulse flour, salt, sugar, coconut, butter and shortening. You want to get the coconut really well ground & the fat evenly distributed (if you’re doing this part by hand, you might want to use a knife to mince the coconut first).  It’s also best if the whole thing is cold–I actually throw all those things in the processor the night before I intend to make a crust and just leave it in the freezer until I’m ready. Once it looks sandy or cornmealy or whatever euphemism you prefer-y, drizzle in the rum and then the 2T coconut water. Keep pulsing until it looks even and then spill out onto plastic wrap. TECHNIQUE TIP: this is where I use the heel of my hand to kind of schmear the dough. Supposedly it turns the pebbles of fat into discs of fat, resulting in an excess of flakiness. Then, bring it all into a cohesive disc, wrap it up and throw it in the fridge. Leave it for an hour or two days, whatever your needs require, and then move on.

To roll out the dough, Google a video on how to roll out dough. My suggestion: roll it out directly on parchment, put in on a cookie sheet and chill the whole thing for 10 minutes, then invert your pie plate onto the dough, flip the whole thing over and gently peel the parchment away. (Save the paper though, you’re about to use it again!) You can then fit your crust, shape it, flute the edges, whatever your druthers. If you have warm hands, I suggest chilling it again. Then bake it: Oven preheated to 425, place the parchment back in the pie shell and fill with dry beans or weights–this step ensures your shell remains a shell and doesn’t turn into a puffy pocket of goodness–then bake for about 10 minutes. While it bakes, prepare an egg wash: 1 egg, 1T coconut water. Once the 10 minutes have passed, take the crust out of the oven & remove the beans and parchment. Using a fork, prick all over the bottom and sides of your crust and brush all over with the egg wash. Place back in the oven for about 10-15 more minutes. Keep an eye on it, when it gets pretty, it’s ready.

In a saucepan, whisk together the eggs, flour, coconut milk, half and half and salt. Put it over a medium flame and whisk/stir constantly until it gets thick, your utensil leaves a trail, and you’re tired of all the whisking. Usually you know it’s done when a single bubble boils up in the middle. You can put this through a sieve if you’re worried about lumps. Otherwise, take it off the heat—transferring to a bowl will help it cool off more quickly, but it’s not necessary. Whisk in the Cognac—you could use bourbon, rye, dark rum or even an almond liquor—anything you like that will compliment and add depth to the coconut flavor. Then whisk in the coconut rum, vanilla and lemon juice (which will round out the flavor and give your tongue something to think about besides sweetness.) Last, whisk in the butter. Once all is completely incorporated, pour it into the pie shell. Place plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard and chill for at least 3 hours. Overnight is cool too—custard pies have to set, yo.

Start by making a simple syrup. Put the coconut water and sugar in a saucepan, swirl it around, set it over a medium flame and leave it alone. If you have a candy thermometer, use it. If you see sugar crystals forming, brush them down with a wet pastry brush.

While that’s working, whip your egg whites, rum and salt until foamy throughout. Once your syrup has reached soft ball stage (240 degrees), take it off the stove and, with your mixer running, or your other hand vigorously whisking, begin to slowly pour the stupidly hot mixture into the egg whites. In so doing you will not only cook the raw egg, but you will have made Italian meringue. Hurrah for you! Once the sugar is all in, add the vanilla and keep beating until you reach stiff peaks 7-10 minutes. Side note: it’s virtually impossible to over-beat meringue when made this way.

Now, you can pipe it on, or just scoop and spread. You can toast the meringue with a torch if you’re daring or in the oven at 400 degrees. You could also throw it under the broiler; or, because it’s fully cooked, you can forgo toasting altogether if that’s not your bag.

Depending on your method of meringue toasting, you might have warmed up the custard so you might want to chill it again for a bit. A warm custard is a runny custard. But deliciousness is ready. And, don’t forget, top it with these. They really are very good. You can also make them yourself, but why go to the trouble.

And there you have it. Award. Winning. Pie. Now that it’s made you can kick back, put your feet up and pipe the remaining meringue directly into your mouth.

Judge, Jordana Rothman, of Time Out NY is really adamant about fluffy meringue.

Luckily, mine was satisfactory!







*All pictures courtesy of the New York Theatre Experiment*

top that.

So I had a free meal at Le Cirque.

But I guess I should back up. First, I paid for a meal at Le Cirque. A writer friend of mine decided to organize an outing to one of New York’s fanciest eateries during the extension of Summer Restaurant Week. After several flake outs and suddenly can’t go’s, we became a group of four. The idea was to enjoy our meal (or not enjoy our meal) then to each blog about our collective experience.

I arrived early, so decided to wait at the bar. Underwhelmed by the cocktail menu, I opted for the least expensive whiskey on the menu, at $14, a Crown on the rocks. Which, after tax and tip cost $20. Lame.

Upon the arrival of the rest of my group, we were told that–although we’d made reservations several weeks ahead–there would be a wait for the dining room; however we were welcome to sit in the cafe (i.e. the less formal room) if we’d like to be seated right away. Lame, but we did it anyway.

In retrospect we should have waited. Not just for the experience of dining in the main room, but because it took at least 20 minutes for the waiter to bring our menus and offer drinks. The surprisingly poor service would continue for the evening; by night’s end we’d been “enjoying our dinner” for upwards of 3 hours.

As for the food: total time warp. The consensus was that we’d just had a meal in 1972. I will be generous and say that my starter, White Gazpacho with Rock Shrimp, was delicious. Sweet cucumber, cut by vinegar and bolstered with a creamy, nutty essence. Peppered with finely diced cucumbers and paprika shrimp, the occasional crunch or tender chew was as welcome as the surprise kick of heat on the back of the tounge.

I took the Skate a la Grenobloise for my main course. I’d say the cauliflower puree was nice, but the effort to say such would lend too much praise to such an awful dish. An uber traditional French preparation, the butter wasn’t properly toasted. As a result the entire dish felt oily and lackluster. And though I’m not a capers biggest fan, the dish desperately needed more of that brininess to cut the grease.

The dessert was great–Ricotta Mousse Cake on a graham base with Blueberry Compote and Fresh Watermelon. The cake was a cloud of delicious nothingness and the blueberries provided a great tang, but here’s the thing: at one of the foremost French restaurants in the country, dessert should not be great, it should be transcendent. I mean, give the watermelon a sweet pickle or sous vide treatment. Please, do something impressive. Also, bring my coffee with my dessert and not five minutes after I’ve finished it, thanks.

On another note, I know restaurants mark up wine prices. We had a delicious white bordeaux: Domaine De Gerard Millet 2010, a Sancerre. It was effervescent & slightly crisp but had a buttery, complex body; perfect for our wide array of dishes. It was $60–not bad. Until a Google search revealed that this very bottle retails for around $16. Ridiculous.

My companions all had similar reactions to their respective meals. One of them, trained through FCI, had prepared that skate dish more times than she could recount throughout her training. Expecting Le Cirque’s version to be the epitome of what that dish should be, she especially found it surprisingly and utterly terrible. So much so that when the restaurant FINALLY brought us our bill she took the opportunity to fill out the oh-so-80s comment card they’d brought along with it.

Upon our exit, the maitre d’ sarcastically quipped, “Would you care for anything else, perhaps a cigarette?” Suggesting we’d been the ones lounging about and demanding sub-par service.

Never expecting to step into Le Cirque again, and fully content in that decision, our rag-tag group was all the more surprised when a rep from the restaurant contacted our organizer the next day both by phone and by email and, based on her comment card musings, offered us all a free meal.

Because one doesn’t turn down a free meal at one of New York’s foremost restaurants, we returned the following week. That however, is another story for another day (most likely tomorrow…)

Until then dear reader, fair well and tread lightly. Or, check out the reviews from my fellow bloggers: