Thursday, May 31, 2012

Strawberry Crème Tart

I'm sitting in my non-air conditioned third floor room, sweating, and thinking about last weekend. It's not that the weekend wasn't hot too--our air conditioner has been broken since Friday night. But in a way, the heat made those non-work days all the more summer-glorious. As the first (unofficial) weekend of summer, I hope it will prove to be a harbinger of many perfect summer weekends to come.

On Saturday morning (after a going away party with this chocolate & strawberry pocky pie), I got up and went to the Mt. Pleasant Farmers' Market, where I picked up a quart of strawberries, a bunch of asparagus, and a hot Asian bun; ran into friends at the coffee shop; went home; wrote; and read in the hammock for a few hours. Not too shabby. Sunday, though, was the quintessential summer day, with a trip to the doughnut shop (Woodmoor Pastry Shop) en route to a private swimming hole outside of Columbia, Maryland. I had been given scant directions (which added to the fun), so I wasn't sure we'd even find it and even when we did finally come upon the little quarry in the woods, we were initially reluctant to jump in, due to snake sightings and pond murk. But we trekked around to where the water was clearer, colder, and sunlit, and dove (or shimmied, rather) in. On the way home we stopped at both the nearby roadside biker bar and ice cream stand and filled ourselves with beer-by-the-bucket and chocolate-vanilla twist cones, respectively.

But that was just the warm-up for Tex Critter and the Snake Motel Six (the group name that emerged, as group names often do, when snakes and woods walks are involved), 'cause there was a a full-fledged stoop-side cook-out in the works. The menu included but was not limited to: dogs and brats, homemade potato salad, grilled asparagus, baked beans, watermelon salad, and a whole lotta Budweiser. The whole shebang went late into the night, capped off with a few rounds of Mad Libs and a game of 1990s-era Trivial Pursuit.

It could really have only been more perfect if I was able to tell you that I made this strawberry crème tart for said cookout. But there was not enough time in our jam-packed day for that, and we ate choco tacos for dessert. In actuality, I made this strawberry crème tart the day before, for (another) going- away-party-that-wasn't.

For the recipe, I went back to my copy of Michel Roux's Pastry, which I haven't used as much as I should (the two recipes I've tried from it--a chocolate raspberry tart and apple tart-- were both stellar) and found a simple French-style strawberry tart, which uses both chantilly cream and crème pâtissière and plain, unadulterated strawberries. It's essentially the French version of strawberry shortcake, replacing the biscuit with pâte sucrée, whipped cream for a more refined "crème", but sticking with the heaping with fresh berries. Here's the recipe, adapted from Michel Roux.

Strawberry Crème Tart
Adapted from Michel Roux's Pastry

For pâte sucrée:
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. butter, cubed and slightly softened
1 c. confectioner's sugar, sifted
pinch of salt
2 large eggs, room temperature

For chantilly cream:
1 c. whipping cream, chilled
1/4 c. confectioner's sugar
pinch of vanilla bean seeds, scraped from the fresh bean
For crème pâtissière:
3 large egg yolks
1/4 c. + 1 Tblsp. sugar
1/8 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (if you don't want to spring for vanilla bean, try using the zest of 1 orange instead)

For strawberries & garnish:
4-5 c. fresh strawberries, hulled
mint sprigs (for garnish, optional)
additional confectioner's sugar (for dusting, optional) 

For pâte sucrée:
1. Put flour in a mound on the counter or rolling mat and make a well. Add cubed butter, confectioner's sugar, and salt, and mix together with your fingertips until dough becomes slightly grainy.
2. Make another well and add the eggs, working them into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the dough begins to come together. When well combined, knead the dough a few times with the palm of your hand until smooth. Roll the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let chill in the fridge for 1-2 hours.
3. While dough is chilling, you may want to prepare your the chantilly cream and crème pâtissière (see below). Once the dough is chilled, unwrap and roll out onto a floured surface until it forms a circle and is about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer it to a greased and floured 9- or 10-inch tart ring, and let chill in the fridge for 20 more minutes before baking.

For chantilly cream & crème pâtissière:
1. While dough is chilling, prepare the creams. For the chantilly cream, put chilled whipping cream, confectioner's sugar, and vanilla bean seeds into the bowl of a standing mixer and beat at medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Increase the speed to high and beat for an additional 3-4 minutes until the cream begins to thicken to form medium peaks. Do not overbeat. If you're not ready to use the chantilly cream right away, you can keep it in the fridge for p to 24 hours.

2. For crème pâtissière, whisk egg yolks and one-third of the sugar together in a bowl until mixture forms a light ribbon consistency. Whisk in the flour until well combined. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk with the remaining sugar and the vanilla bean. When it comes to a boil, immediately pour it onto the egg yolk mixture, stirring continuously. Mix until well combined, then return entire mixture to the saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Let bubble for 2 minutes, then pour into a bowl. To prevent a skin from forming, dust the crème with confectioner's sugar. Let cool to room temperature, then chill in the fridge until cold. It can be kept in the fridge up to 3 days. Make sure to remove the vanilla bean before you pour it into the pie crust!

For baking and assembly:
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Prick the base of the chilled pastry shell and line with parchment paper and pie weights. Bake for about 25 minutes, then remove parchment and pie weights and bake for an additional 15 minutes until crust is fully baked. Take from oven and let cool.

2. Meanwhile, halve the strawberries if they are large or leave them whole if they are large. In a medium bowl, gently fold the chantilly cream into crème pâtissière and fill the tart crust with the cream mixture. Arrange the strawberries on top of the cream, heaping them up in the middle. Return to the fridge to let everything set, at least 20 minutes, or eat right away (but maybe not if your kitchen is hot like mine!). Before eating, dust strawberries with confectioner's sugar and garnish with a few mint sprigs, if desired. Enjoy!

Considering the lack of air conditioning in my house at the time, this tart proved a little more challenging than it should have been, particularly because, as you'll notice in the recipe, I tried the pâte sucrée-making technique where you essentially make a pile of flour, then work in the butter and egg with your hands. Not so easy when it's 90 degrees in the kitchen! I got quite the hot buttery mess all over my fingers, but did eventually get the crust to form together.

And though I did chill both creams/(crèmes) for several hours, they started getting a little runny as soon as they hit the hot house temps. As you might be able to tell from the photos, I also got a little overly ambitious with the amount of crème/cream (I'm struggling with the appropriate spelling here, clearly) I scooped into the crust.

HOWEVER. Despite all these hardships, this tart is a delight, perfect for your Memorial Day cookout imaginary dessert, going away party that wasn't, or some party in the future that will actually happen.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Chocolate & Strawberry Pocky Pie

My dad used to make us fancy breakfasts on Sundays--waffles, pancakes, or french toast, generally. I remember one Sunday in particular when my brother and I came downstairs, sat down at the kitchen table and found that my dad had had the genius idea of putting cherry pie filling into the waffle batter. I was BAFFLED. "How did you even think to DO that?" I asked. My dad sarcastically replied, "Well, I was thinking, and thinking, an I kept thinking...and that's what I thunk!". I think I remember that moment so clearly, because it was then that I discovered the art of improvisation. Improvising in the kitchen (or "jazz baking"/"free jazz baking" as my friend Mandy calls it) is something that my dad really prides himself on--a little of this, a little of that, a new twist on an old classic--and I think I inherited some of that bug. It's harder in baking then cooking, but I feel like I'm just getting to the point as a baker where I am more comfortable with experimentation, and with that, failure.

The other day I was thinking and thinking, and kept thinking, and I thunk up the idea of a pie crust out of Pocky. The Japanese biscuit is a nostalgic treat for me, right up there with Koala Yummies. I think my aunt gave both to my brother and I when her pilot friend brought some back from a trip to Japan. Though "Men's Pocky" is clearly superior, lately I've been pretty into the strawberry variety. A few months ago I made strawberry Pocky ice cream, in an attempt to replicate some that I had from a Japanese food truck in Nashville last summer. It was goood. I was thinking that strawberry Pocky pie crust would be too.

I used a basic graham cracker crust recipe, substituting the grahams for the Pocky and subtracting a few tablespoons of sugar. I opted for a simple chocolate filling this time around, so that the Pocky flavor would stand out. I had hoped that the crust would be pink, and it was before I baked it, but like purple green beans that disappointingly turn green when cooked, the Pocky crumbs lost all of their strawberry hue in the oven.

Chocolate & Strawberry Pocky Pie

For Crust:
1 1/4 c. strawberry Pocky crumbs (about 6- 1.16oz boxes)
1 Tblsp. sugar
1/3 c. butter, melted 

For Chocolate:
7 oz. 60-70% dark chocolate (unsweetened), broken into pieces
3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. heavy cream

For Crust:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Put strawberry Pocky in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely ground into crumbs. Add sugar and melted butter and pulse until well mixed.

2. Pat the buttery crumbs into a 9-inch pie pan, pressing mixture into the bottom and sides to form a pie crust. Place in oven and bake until crust is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Place on a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature before adding the filling.

For Chocolate:
1. Put chocolate, sugar, and heavy cream into the top of a double boiler. Put water in the bottom of the boiler and place on medium heat until filling is melted, glossy, and thick.
2. Pour chocolate ganache over the baked Pocky crust and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Serve at room temperature.

In the end, the crust was delicious, and the strawberry flavor was present but not unnaturally  overbearing. Though it might not have matched my dad's improvisational genius of cherry pie waffles, It certainly wasn't a failure, and I'm excited about other Pocky pie possibilities--strawberry Pocky crust with a dark chocolate coconut filling? Men's Pocky crust with a raspberry icebox filling? Strawberry Pocky icebox filling in a strawberry Pocky crust? Turns out, there is Pocky for kitty (bonus points if you get that allusion...)

I brought this pie over to my friend Cole's house for a not-so-celebration of his departure from DC to the west coast. It accompanied delicious potato salad, mac and cheese, and spicy drumsticks on the cookout buffet table, and fueled our late night dance jams at the Last Cherch Service.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Braceros' Cafeteria Pie

This photo, of women cooks/bakers preparing to serve pie to Mexican workers in Hood River County, Oregon, c. 1943, comes to us by way of the Oregon State University Archives. According to the Archive, almost the entire work force of international migrant workers at that time was composed of over 15,000 young Mexican nationals, who came to the U.S. via the Bracero Program, a WWII era labor initiative between the United States and Mexico. The Braceros, as they were called, were employed on farms and orchards where there were critical labor shortages due to the war. Many faced poor living conditions and suffered from labor disputes and lack of interpreters. When American men returned from the war after 1945, most of these workers lost their jobs and were deported to Mexico. Though Braceros essentially saved American agriculture during WWII, they are generally not recognized for their labor and contribution.

Just as I'm curious about the lives of the Braceros, in particular their songs, traditions, and other labor lore, I also wonder who the women in the above photo were--Wives and daughters of Bracero camp managers? Single mothers in need of work? What was there their own work culture, in juxtaposition to those of the Braceros, and what might have been the intersection between those two worlds of Mexican laborers and American women whose husbands or brothers were away at war? And also importantly, what kind of pie is that? Apple, peach, or pear with fruit from the orchard, perhaps?

You can see more photos of the series here (though none others contain pie) and read more about the Braceros via Oregon Public Broadcasting here. Also check out Woody Guthrie's song Deportee, which was written about the 1948 death of 28 Braceros who were being deported back to Mexico.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lardass Returns in The Runcible Spoon Swimsuit Issue!

As I mentioned a few posts ago, The Runcible Spoon is a wonderful little food zine based in Washington, D.C. whose approach to food is fun and fanciful rather than serious and stuffy. It's completely handmade and features imaginative original writing and creative collage by local writers and illustrators.

I had the pleasure of contributing a piece ("Lardass Returns!") about pie--a potato-green chili pie with a cheddar bacon crumble and lard crust, to be exact--to their most recent issue--THE SWIMSUIT ISSUE! Here's a little more about it, from editor Malaka Gharib:

Our new summer SWIMSUIT issue features lusciously gratuitous food options and down-home, sticks-to-your-ribs recipes that are guaranteed to make that winter weight permanent and get us beach-ready in no time. The zine includes a story on the art of frying avocados from NPR producer, Bill Chappell; a photo essay on vintage kitchenware by the Washington Post's AJ Chavar; and a recipe for lard pie by DC-based, Tarts by Tarts' Emily Hilliard.

Want to make this perfectly heavy summer treat? Click on the image above or better yet, buy a copy (see below)!

Wanna get your greasy little hands on a copy? You can order them on Etsy here for the very low price of $3 each! It's on my recommended summer reading list for the beach, backyard, or bus.

And by the way, this issue has gotten some amazing press! The Huffington Post Food & DC sections have covered it, as well as The New York Times Magazine (last Sunday), Washington City Paper, Refinery29, ScoutMob and the Washington Post, too. Now go get you some fried avocados and lard pie!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sweet Tea Pie & A Barn Dance

Well, it's certainly not the most beautiful thing I've ever made, sweet tea pie. When I was taking these photos, attempting to make it look better by propping the shot with a pitcher of iced tea and a lemon, Brent and our friend Joe were teasing me, saying that ugly looking food was really the next culinary wave, because why distract yourself with unnecessary aesthetic (the philosophy behind Opaque, I suppose)? Let the food speak for itself--why make it look good?, they joked. I tried my best...

Sweet tea pie, a recipe of Mississippi chef Martha Hall Foose's via Nancie McDermott, is a chess pie spin-off that's infused with the beverage that can clearly identify southerners from non (As an Indiana-native with a health-conscious mom, I had never ever had iced tea so sweet as I did when I came to North Carolina). The filling is accented by a bit of lemon, as you might take in your tea, and a lot of butter, as you might not take in your tea. It's one of those, that like the salty honey pie, looks better before baking, because once in the oven all of that sugar caramelizes, turning brown and appearing almost burnt, like a not-so-dainty creme brûlée. But in the same way as the classic French dessert, that crusty top just masks the smooth and oozing sweet filling inside. The tea flavor is noticeable, but I wish it were a little stronger (perhaps by using more tea bags?), and that it was a little less sweet. But make it according to your preference--Do you like your sweet tea so sweet it makes your teeth quiver (I feel like that could be a line in a country song)? If so, stick with the 2 cups.

Sweet Tea Pie
Adapted slightly from Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies

1 1/2-2 c. sugar, depending on how sweet you like your sweet tea
1 c. butter, softened
8 egg yolks
3/4 c. strong black tea, room temperature (I used 2 tea bags)
1 Tblsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 packed tsp. lemon zest
2 Tblsp. all-purpose flour
2 Tblsp. cornmeal
1/2 tsp. salt

1. Prepare half of Nothing-in-the-House pie crust (for 1 bottom crust) as per the instructions. Chill dough for at least one hour. Once chilled, roll out and fit into a greased and floured 9-inch pie pan. Flute edges and return to the fridge until ready to use. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Using a Kitchenaid or by hand, beat the sugar and butter on medium speed in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition. Turn off the mixer and add tea, lemon juice & zest, and beat on medium speed until well incorporated. Add flour, cornmeal, and salt and beat on low until mixed evenly.

3. Remove pie crust from the fridge and pour filling into the crust. Place it on the bottom shelf of the oven and bake until edges puff and center is fairly firm, about 45-50 minutes. The top will be crystallized and deep brown similar to the top of a creme-brûlée, and filling will bubble and appear somewhat liquid, though should only wiggle slightly when nudged. Let pie cool on a cooling rack and serve warm or at room temperature.

The lack of beauty of the pie itself was made up for by the surroundings and evening in which we ate it. Yesterday evening, Brent and Joe and I piled into Brent's truck, packed to the gills with fiddles and guitars and banjos and beers and this here pie, and got the hell outta DC, headed towards a barn dance at Moutoux Orchard in Loudon County, Virginia. After driving through the suburban monstrosities of Northern Virginia, we eventually found ourselves among horse farms and vineyards and even a cricket match(!) and rolled up in the golden hour of the evening, with the rolling hills and peach trees aglow in a warm light.

After the potluck dinner and as the band was warming up, my friends and I wandered down to the barn, where we found a very new calf trying out her wobbly legs. She put on quite a show for the camera, jumping about the pen, rubbing her nose in the mud, and practicing her moo. Eventually a crowd gathered and everyone was so taken by the bovine model that Joe had quite a task pulling them away from her to get them to come dance.

 But once he did, the party took off, with a barn packed full of dancers, many who had never square danced before. Joe did an excellent job calling and keeping everyone grapevine twisting, mountaineer looping, and shooting the hole through the old tin can late into the night-- quite a task when a good part of the crowd were farmers with early morning wake-up calls.

 As I like to do at things like this, I saved the pie for the set break, when everyone was sweaty and tipsy and tired enough to be hungry all over again. The band didn't really stop playing though, so I slipped plates with slices under their chairs and dished up the rest for whoever wanted a piece. In my own state of sweaty and tipsy and tiredness, I didn't manage to snap a clear photo of the sliced pie, but I did want to show you the smooth yellow filling under that crusty layer, so let's just call it a "mood shot" and move on.

I needed that slice with its dose of caffeine (and butter, so much butter) to keep me going, because even when the dance ended past midnight, we stayed up a few hours more to sit around and pick a few tunes. When we finally closed down the barn and curled up to go to sleep in the truck, I suddenly realized the country song-ready pun, sweet tea pie or sweetie pie?

You can find more pictures of the dance (and more of that cute calf) here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Strawberry Icebox Pie

Strawberry Icebox Pie with Fresh Strawberries

It's that time. The time of the narrow overlap between rhubarb season and strawberry season. When I lived up north, the reasoning behind the strawberry-rhubarb pie, though one of my all-time favorites, was puzzling, as the two fruits never seemed to coincide seasonally. Down in the more southern climes, though, you can generally acquire both fruits (or the fruit and vegetable?) in one May farmers' market trip.

As I mentioned in the last post, this past weekend finally felt like we were on the brink of summer. It was warm, all the trees were finally brilliant green and leafed-out, and I was even nursing a bit of a sunburn from the weekend prior. On our way back from Korean brunch on Saturday morning, we drove past the Mt. Pleasant Farmers' Market. As we approached, I slowed down to a cruising speed, and craned my neck out the window. "Do you see strawberries?" I asked Brent. "Totally," he replied. I slammed on the brakes "REALLY?!!" "What? No." But by then I had already pulled the car over and focused my strawberry tracking beam eyes on stacks of green quart boxes filled with those red berries.

Maybe my special vision only works on berries, though, because I didn't spot any rhubarb at the market. But no matter, I knew that for my inaugural dessert of berry season, I wanted to make this oh-so-summery strawberry icebox pie, recipe from Nancie McDermott.

Strawberry Icebox Pie with Whipped Cream

As Nancie says in her book, Southern Pies, many icebox pies use gelatin to set it up, this filling is essentially just a quick strawberry jam, folded in with whipped cream, making it similar to the classic British dessert, fool. The strawberries-and-cream also make it rather Wimbledon-esque, which signals the arrival of summer. Though this pie might have some Brit-leanings, it is distinctly American, and I might be jumping the gun here, it could be just the perfect thing for your 4th of July tennis viewing party (which coincides with the men's quarterfinals this year).

Say strawberries aren't your thing, though? Perhaps you have a tree-full of mulberries in your backyard or happened upon a black raspberry patch in the park. Another thing that's superb about this pie is that it's incredibly versatile. Substitute blueberries or blackberries or raspberries for the strawberries, and you've got a recipe that will last you all summer long. In fact, you could use any type of jam, adding other flavors like ginger, vanilla, mint...the possibilities are endless. You could also try different crusts, like this pecan shortbread, almond shortbread, or for something tropical, how 'bout a gingersnap-macadamia? Whatever variation you try, this is the perfect pie to come home to after a day spent poolside (or court side), out in the sun.

Strawberry Icebox Pie on Windowsill

Strawberry Icebox Pie
Adapted from Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies

For Crust:
1 1/4 c. graham cracker crumbs (about 15 cracker squares)
3 Tblsp. sugar
1/3 c. butter, melted

For Filling:
1/3 c. cornstarch
1/3 c. water
6 c. hulled and coarsely chopped strawberries, ideally fresh (though frozen is okay too!)
1 c. sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 tsp. butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/4 c. heavy cream
2 c. fresh strawberries, sliced (for garnish, optional)

For Crust:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Put graham crackers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until crackers are finely ground into crumbs. Add sugar and melted butter and pulse until well mixed.

2. Pat the buttery crumbs into a 9-inch pie pan, pressing mixture into the bottom and sides to form a pie crust. Place in oven and bake until crust is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Place on a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature before adding the filling.

For Filling: 
1. Combine cornstarch and water in a small bowl, whisking until all lumps are dissolved. Set aside.

2. Combine hulled and chopped strawberries, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan. Cook on medium heat until the strawberry mixture comes to a low boil. Stirring often, continue to cook the mixture until a sauce begins to form, about 5 minutes.

3. Re-whisk the cornstarch and water mixture and add it to the saucepan. Continue to cook and stir the sauce until it boils again, becomes thick and berries soften, approximately 3-4 minutes longer. Remove from the heat, stir in the butter and vanilla and set aside to cool to room temperature.

4. Meanwhile, whip the cream in a large bowl until it becomes very thick and holds round medium peaks. Stir in the strawberry jam mixture and gently it in with the cream until evenly combined. Pour filling into the graham cracker crust and refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours, until pie is very cool and the filling is quite firm. Serve cold, with extra strawberries and/or additional whipped cream. Strawberries and cream!

Just made a trip to the strawberry patch? Check out these these other recipes for a classic strawberry pie, strawberry-apricot pie (and a song), or a strawberry-rhubarb and wine-soaked fig rustic tart.

P.S. After years of using a pretty crappy digital point-and-shoot, I finally have a great new camera, a birthday present from my awesome dad, who is, in fact, a professional photographer. I still need to learn to use it a little better (note the middle photo). But bigger and better photos, here we come!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Runcible Spoon's Summer Issue Launch Party

Is it summer yet? The sundresses (and even some sunburn), blockbusters, and strawberries of this past weekend all point to YES. But the weather is still a little rainy and mild for the real summer onslaught, the pools aren't open yet, and I still gotta work on that summer tan. Another way I'll be preppin' is with the Runcible Spoon's Summer Issue & Launch Party!

The Runcible Spoon is a rad and quirkly DC food zine whose approach to food is fun and fanciful rather than serious and stuffy. It's completely handmade and the writing and recipes are accented by creative collage and comic-al illustrations.

This time around, they've put together a SUMMER SWIMSUIT ISSUE, full of fat and greasy recipes to get you pumped about donning that itsy bitsy teeny weenie yellow polka dot bikini. I'm extra excited about this edition because I was asked to be a contributing writer! I'll be sharin a lil' piece about lard pie crust that's topped with a very heavy, creamy, decadent filling. All that fat (lard is 100%) will really help you float on the ocean waves.

The launch party is happening Tuesday (that's tomorrow!), May 15th from 6:30-8:30pm at Blind Dog Cafe (944 Florida Ave. NW). There will be a bubble blowing contest (BYOBG), snacks, and new issues for your hot & sweaty little hands. Hope to see you there!

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Raspberry Tart & Then We Start To Feel Much Better

A classic Sesame Street song (and "Hey Jude" parody) about emotional eating, with a list of comfort foods that includes bread, veggies (gotta set a good example for the kiddies), and a raspberry tart. Good thing Jim Henson also taught us how to share.

It's not quite the season yet, but if you're looking for a good raspberry tart recipe to quell those sad feelings, here's one from deep in the archives, and here are two (1, 2) that pair berries with chocolate. And if that's still not enough to turn that frown upside-down, this goat cheese tart goes very well with raspberry preserves...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Birthday Cake on A Pie Blog (for Panda Head)

I've been delaying writing about this because I've been conflicted. And for a few reasons. There was  the political roller coaster of the past few days along with the tug of some potential exciting opportunities versus the pull of reality... But the one that's the most relevant to this space (and perhaps the most trivial, though this is for fun, ya?) has been in regards to the age-old pie vs. cake debate. Specifcally, is it okay to write about cake, the purported natural born enemy of pie, on a pie blog??

Personally I don't see the two in opposition...they're both delicious and relevant in different situations. There's been many times when folks have suggested or given me pie for my birthday, and it's not that I wasn't appreciative or didn't enjoy it--I wholeheartedly did and always will! But for me, birthdays call for cake and nothing but, and though I like many different varieties (carrot, red velvet, pistachio, to name a few), and am normally not one for overly-sweet, nothing says "birthday" to me like white buttercream-on-white cake, with overloaded decorative frosting.

So with that justification, along with an additional "exception to the rule" logic, I'm going to do it. Post about cake.

Last month Tarts by Tarts was contacted by Morgan of Panda Head -- the DC lifestyle blog of all-things-fun-and-rad. Morgan said that she'd always considered May a birthday month, and asked if Kari and I might contribute birthday cake photos and a recipe for her up-coming May newsletter. Kari and I, with birthdays in mid-May and end-of-April, respectively (TAURUS LOVE!) were totally down, and we added in a springy gin cocktail, the Mayday, to sweeten the deal.

When I turned six, we celebrated my birthday on a friends' communal farm where I spent a lot of time as a child. My mom and her friend hid my birthday party in the woods--teddy bears' picnic style--and we had to go find it. Perhaps it is an undiscovered instinct in children to be able to sniff out a birthday party, but for some reason we hiked almost directly to it. When we finally tracked it down, there we found balloons and tables and chairs made of logs, covered with presents, party favors, and of course, a white-on-white cake.

Ever since then, I seem to hold all birthday parties to that standard, so when Morgan said "outdoor birthday" I immediately thought of a hidden cake in Rock Creek Park. That presented a few too many logistical challenges, though, so we decided on the next best thing--a backyard birthday party.

With our "style vibe" nailed down, then we had to decide on the cake--first thing's first, ya know. Kari is also of the white buttercream birthday cake school of thought, but we wanted something a little more innovative. I was quite struck by the scraps I got to try of this pistachio layer cake Kari made for her friends' wedding. But we wanted a recipe that would be somewhat new for both of us, AND something that would go with salted caramel, which we've both been pretty into lately (Who hasn't? But seriously--bourbon caramel glazed doughnuts, anyone?). We've also been in utter awe of Apt. 2 B's beautiful beautiful ombre frosting technique. So we put all these equations in our recipe hat, mixed it up a bit, and drew out a pecan layer cake with salted caramel layers and vanilla buttercream in a yellow ombre. BAM.

So on one fine spring Sunday, Morgan and her photographer pal Michelle Rigg bicycled up to our house, and we spent a few hours in our kitchen and backyard frosting and mixing and chatting and styling and snapping pics (and okay, drinking and eating). It was almost as fun as a real birthday party and it was so great to have a creative collaboration with these three rad ladies.

Enough with the faux-birthday party though, here's how to make that cake for your REAL May Day...

You can click on the recipe cards to make them bigger, if needed. And feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.

Now you want a little sipper to add to all that sweet? Here's the recipe for our Mayday cocktail. I should note that we highly recommend using the Greenbrier gin from Smooth Ambler, a small batch distillery outside of Lewisburg, West Virginia, which we visited in the fall. Their gin is great for this drink because it has a smoooth citrus flavor without a lot of the dominant juniper taste of other dry British gins (which certainly have their place). The Mayday also works well as a punch--I made a huge batch of the stuff for my own birthday party, and with its bright purple hue, it looked so festive in the bowl. It's also strong and easy to drink a lot of. Mayday, mayday, going down...

Is it any wonder that our frosting looks like butter? For more pictures and great commentary, don't forget to check out the original post in the Panda Head May newsletter here, Kari's post on Tanglewood, and this little shout-out we got from Refinery29! Special thanks to Kari and Michelle for their beautiful pictures and sorry I got longwinded with this post--I don't get to talk about cake very much. Happy backyard birthday!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Preacher and the Slave (Pie In The Sky)

What with May Day, Pete Seeger's birthday today (which is really the reason for my post--Happy 93rd Pete!), and this book I've been reading about labor-lorist Archie Green, I've been thinking a lot lately about labor movements in history. On May Day proper I attended the American Folklife Center Botkin lecture given by the author of said book, Sean Burns. There I saw my old bosses engage in inspiring discussion about folklore history, the Wobblies, and Archie and Pete's differing opinions on "folk songs" vs. "people's songs" vs. "worker songs". It seems that in Archie's eyes, even Pete was co-opting and commercializing these Wobbly songs songs a little too much.

One of the songs in question was the "Preacher and the Slave," written by Wobbly Joe Hill in 1919 and included in the Little Red Songbook. It was a parody of the Salvation Army (which the Wobblies referred to as the "Starvation Army") adopted hymn "In The Sweet By And By" and also coined the phrase "pie in the sky," as a critique of the Salvation Army and their focus on saving souls rather than on the living conditions and rights of hungry workers.

And just to follow that trajectory a bit, the phrase and concept of "pie in the sky" reappears in many subsequent protest songs and writings. A perhaps unexpected example can be found in the title track of Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come, which very loosely (and I mean very loosely) deals with the oppression of the poor in Jamaica. "They tell me of the pie up in the sky, waiting for me when I die, but between the day you're born and when you die, you know they never seem to hear even your cry."

The main point of both is one that I can really get down with--instead of a pie up in the sky, why not some pie right here, right now? I hope Pete is enjoying some today.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

2nd Annual Northeast Pie Contest!

If there's one thing I can do well, it's eat pie. I'm excited to put that skill to good use this Sunday, May 6th as a guest judge in the HandsOn Greater DC 2nd Annual Northeast Pie Contest! It's happening at Atlas Performing Arts Center 1333 H St. NE from 2:00-4:30pm, and you can RSVP here.

The event is free and open to the public--both for pie eaters and pie bakers, and there will be excellent prizes for the winners in five different categories: Sweet, Savory, People's Choice, and Novelty. Despite my love for all things pie, I'm a little nervous about what those novelty pies might contain... I hope to see all you DC folks there, and for your and my sake both, with delicious pies in hand!

Cranberry Chess Pie

Fig Pistachio Tarte Tatin

Peppermint Pattie Tart

Whiskey & Dark Chocolate Bundt Cake

Blog Archive