Monday, November 28, 2005

Easy as Pie 

Nowadays, many people are unsure of the meaning of the old saying "easy as pie". That's because they grew up with box cake mixes, baking powder, baking soda, electric mixers and the like. They haven't made cake from total scratch using only wooden spoons (and maybe a whisk).

If they had, they'd know the 5 minutes it takes to mix up a pie and toss it in the oven really is incredibly easy.

And if more people knew how truly easy it is to make pie, frozen pie sales would plummet.

Making pie crust is far simpler than many people believe it is. If you have room to roll it out, from beginning to oven, making a pie takes 5 minutes.

Here's my 5 Minute Pie:

Double Crust

2 1/4 cups flour
dash of salt
3/4 cups solid fatty stuff (Crisco, lard, butter, or some combination or equivalent thereof)
5-10 tablespoons very cold liquid (water, lemon juice, apple cider, amaretto or any any combination or equivalent thereof)

Mixing bowl
measuring cups and spoons
Pastry cutter
Rolling pin
Pie tin

If you don't have a pastry cutter with 4 sharpish blades, tape 3 or 4 good butter knives together to use, and "cut" the fatty stuff into the flour and salt until you get little lumps the size of peas (takes about 30-45 seconds with some good wrist action). As soon as you get lumps, dump in about 5 tablespoons of your very cold liquid (it's OK to put ice in it to chill it down, and scoop the liquid out with your measuring spoon) and use your pastry cutter to blend it together. If it's too dry, add more liquid. Give it a a few quick kneads with your hand and plop it onto a floured flat surface (some people like using waxrd paper, or a marble board, or those plastic pie bags, but really, if you have a clean, flat surface, that's all you need. Sprinkle on some flour, divide the dough in half and flatten it onto teh flour with your hand. Lift it up, Sprinkle on a bit more flour and flip the dough. Roll it out into something approximating a circle (and if all you can do is a decentish rectangle, that'll do). If you don't have a rolling pin, you can use a straight-sided glass. It's not as easy, but it works. If all else fails, you can pat it out like pizza dough. If the dough tears, repair it by moistening the edges with water and smoothing it together. You may want to sprinkle on a bit of flour if you're still rolling.

Now, roll the dough up like a poster going into a shipping tube (Use a knife or your fingernails to get the crust off the table if it sticks, repair after it's in the pie tin). Where the crust used to be, put the pie tin, and then unroll the crust over the pie tin. Don't worry if it tears, you can fix it with a bit of water. The crust should overhang the pie tin all around. If it doesn't, just tear off bits where it overhangs a lot and attach the piece to the skimpy areas with a bit of water, just like a repair. For really fast pie, open a jar of filling you made earlier (or canned filling from the store - except canned filling always needs tweaking - adding cinnamon or almonds or tarragon or white pepper or something) and dump it in. If you want a top crust, roll out the other half of the dough, use a teeny cookie cutter to cut out 3 or 4 small holes, then roll up the dough and unroll it on top of the pie. Pinch the edges together and cut off any excess. If you want it to look fancy, dampen the backs of the cut out pieces of dough and stick them between the cut outs. You can cut out more pieces from the left-over dough and "glue" those on with water, too.

All of this shouldn't take much more than 10 minutes, and with practice will eventually only take 5 minutes to do.

Cover the edges of the pie with foil (or a pie crust sleeve or the rim of a foil pie tin that you saved from the last store-bought frozen pie you had), stick your pie in the oven, and bake it at 375º or 400º for about 45 minutes. Take the edge off the crust and let it bake another 15-25 minutes, until well browned.

Voila! Easy Pie!

This crust works really well with savory fillings, too. Don't let fruit be your only filling. Consider vegetables, meats, even grains. One of my favorite pies is made with rice, boiled eggs, carrot sticks, and salmon, served with a butter sauce.

And don't limit your pie shapes, either. Some of those fancy gelatin molds? They make fabulous pie tins for double crust pies. Cool the pie completely, then invert the pie to show off the fancy patterns in the crust.

Professionals are good at making pies round because they either do it a lot (and practice makes perfect) or they use machines called laminators (or various other things) that roll the dough out for them. Don't compare your perfectly yummy home made pie crust to a store bought and probably machine-made pie.

And notice how the recipe calls for things like lemon juice or apple cider? Don't be afraid of experimenting with various liquids to alter the flavor of your crust. Mix and match thet crust to the filling. Use almond milk for a cherry pie crust, or hazelnut milk for a peach pie crust, or apple cider in an apple pie crust or lemon juice in an apple pie crust. Toss in a pinch of cinnamon or cardamom with the flour for fruity pies, or add ground pepper or cayenne or sage to the crust of a savory pie.

Each pie you make can be different - and yummy. And if the crust has a few tears in it? Or wasn't perfectly round when you rolled it out? Those things don't effect the flavor. But, if you're really embarrassed by your crust's look - use sauces! Cut the pie and pour on some delicious sauce, and serve it that way. Try a lemon sauce for apple pies, or match gravies to savory pies. Top your pie with extra filling or ice cream or whipped cream or creme fraiche. People will love the flavor and never notice your apple cut-outs are crooked or your pie edge is uneven.

If you make enough pies, once you've conquered your fear of making crusts, you'll be turning out pies you love.

Pie really is easy. Don't let the pretty pictures in books and magazines intimidate you.

Friday, November 25, 2005

A row of pies: the fartherest pie is pumpkin, with a "beaded" crust. The next closest is apple, with apple sut-outs. Then there's the crancherry pie, with a wreath of leaves cut-out. The closest pie is pecan, with a "leaf" crust. Posted by Picasa

Monday, November 14, 2005

Entering the Third Year 

Had everything gone according to hopes and plans, we'd be celebrating our first anniversary as an open and fully functioning bakery.

Things didn't happen as planned - if you've been reading this blog, you'll know most of the trials and obstacles we've faced.

Some of them are of our own making - Manager has a specific idea of how the Cracked Cauldron should be operated, and won't change that even if it means turning down venture capitol. We have a vision for this bakery, and changing it to be just like Starbuck's or Panera's just isn't a part of it.

Yes, we know Starbuck's and Panera's are wildly successful, and we've certainly studied how they got that way. The Cracked Cauldron has a dofferent vision, though - one that's more community-oriented on many levels. You see, Starbuck's and Panera's succeed because they are "generic" - because there so many of them they mass-produce their products to insure the same level of quality at every store. For them, this is good, and their customers have the comfort of knowing the menu no matter which store they visit.

But we want a bakery that uses local produce, supports local farmers and ranchers, and is an intergral part of the local culture.

This is why the Cracked Cauldron, when it finally opens (and it will open - someday), will feature music from local performers, art from local artists, and a seasonal menu using locally grown and raised foods, and celebrating local events. And we will use our bakery to help the working poor and working homeless - a class of poor that is overlooked by almost every charity and agency out there.

Even though we aren't open as a bakery, we've been proceeding with our plans to assist the working poor and homeless through a Sandwich Saturdays program, where we bake bread and make sandwiches that we deliver to the places where the working homeless sleep before they head out for their jobs. Now that cold weather is arriving, we will make nourishing soups and bread for them. It's not much. It's far less than what we'd be capable of once the bakery's open, but it's such a need we can't keep looking the other way.

Potential customers of ours keep asking when we'll open, and occassionally, even though we know we don't have a commercially approved kitchen, we'll nake things for them - for a party, for a favor. We still create new recipes, and encourage our Beloved Guinea Pigs to eat them.

Last night, for example, we baked Fairy Cakes, topped with a frosting that is light, airy, and meltingly good - made with whipping cream, marshmallow creme, and almond milk, and decorated with rainbow sprinkles. The cake itself was "magic cake" made with vinegar, mayonnaise, tomato soup, coffee, and cocoa. It came out looking like a red velvet cake, without the artifical red food coloring. It was light, moist, and subtly sweet, well complimented by the fluffy frosting.

We've also been playing around with the Hot Drops recipe, to give them more flavor and make them taste less like Cheez-Its. We've made them chewy, and I think the blend of hot sauces (smoky chipotle, tabasco, habanero, a jamaican blend of tamarinds, cayenne, and pineapple, and a nice mango, mustard, and Scotch Bonnet sauce) and the seriously sharp cheddar is a good one. But what makes the new Hot Drops even better is the topping of different cracked peppers, salt, and garlic. I think I need to up the jamaican and mustard sauces a bit because their flavor was scarcley noticeable. Once we get this recipe right, no one will ever again be reminded of Cheez-Its when they eat them.

Manager has spent the past 10 months getting experience in management techniques, budgeting, and payroll by working as an intern/temp for a large company. This has given her some amazing insights in how big companies operate - and helped her refine her own employee policy. She feels her initial instincts in employee relations was the right one, her experience conforms her in this, except now she has actual working experience for it - and she knows what not to do, something almost as important as knowing what to do.

Her next step is to get certification from the Culinary Arts Institute - which just opened a branch locally, making it affordable for her. It's not that she doesn't know how to bake, it's that potential investors tend not to believe that someone so young knows what she's doing without that piece of paper to back her up.

That's going to delay our opening plans even further.

Do you know how frustrating it is to know you have this great idea, one that will be amazingly successful, with recipes that are deliciously unique and addictive in their flavors - and not be able to implement it because the right people don't believe in you? We have lots of supporters, lots of people who want us to open, lots of people who will be faithful customers once we open, but none of them can afford to invest in pre-opening costs.

Those costs are not cheap: rent, utilities, fees, licenses, inspections, ovens.

Manager is still considering opening in some other state. Before Katrina, she was considering New Orleans - not the French Quarter, much as she loves it, but downtown New Orleans, where rents are - were - less expensive.

Post-Katrina, it's still a possibility. It just may need more contrivance than before.

Still, however we look at things, it will be several years before we get to where we hoped to be a year ago.

Starting up a business from complete and total scratch is possible, but nobody ever said it would be easy.

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