Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Pie Crust That Can Fly

I'm just going to give it to you straight. The best pie maker in Wilmington is not a southerner. Yes, I know it is hard to accept, but Carolyn Atkinson is a welcome transplant at Flying Pi Kitchen on the corner of 4th and Chestnut and you'll stop complaining once you taste her pie of the day.

Number two in the "from scratch wisdom with Carolyn Atkinson" series: the pie crust that you can't seem to get enough of.

The recipe for a good crust is never particularly complicated. You need a ratio of flour to fat to liquid that lets the water evaporate while baking, leaving the buttery flour crisp and rich. And you need to do it fairly quickly, keeping everything cold and not letting the gluten form.

And yet there are a million astuces, tricks and pieces of advice from bloggers and great aunt elmas. I've read articles discussing the percentage of fat in French vs. American butter (which is apparently government regulated) and the merits of a food processor vs hand mixed, but the simple truth seems to be that each person is going to have a different pie crust. You just need to develop your own style with as much wisdom input as you can get.

I realize I am repeating myself, but a recipe won't teach you to cook. Cooking with someone who knows how to cook will teach you to cook. And yet I have a blog, so here's my best shot at transcribing that experience.

Ingredients for 2 crusts
(or one top and one bottom)
1c butter
3c flour
tsp sugar (if sweet crust)
tsp salt (if savory crust)
A mix of 1 part grain alcohol, 1 part water, ideally in a squirt bottle
Note: This recipe uses a food processor

Cut the butter into 1 inch cubes and put everything in the freezer for a good 30 minutes before starting. Yep. Everything. In the freezer.

Put the flour and sugar or salt in the food processor and give it a quick buzz to mix. Cover it first, silly, or you'll have flour all over the place.

Next in goes HALF the butter. There is an eternal debate about the ideal size of butter clumps floating in flour, which Carolyn solves once and for all by blending the first half into the consistency of sand, and then adding the other half and blending until they are about the size of lima beans.

Then comes the water and alcohol liquid. This you squeeze in 2 tablespoons at a time, blasting a few times in the blender between each addition, for a total af about 6T. Always use bursts of processing, checking each time before adding more liquid because there is no perfect amount. The liquid to flour ratio will depend on altitude, the weather that day, how long your flour has sat out, etc. So you have to develop and eye and a fist for it.

When a handful squeezed in your fist clumps together, you probably have enough liquid, and a few more blasts of processing will get you to the 'ball' point you see to the side.

This is always kind of a miraculous process as it looks as if there is no possible way that there is enough liquid... and then three seconds later it is a wet ball of dough.

The food processor comes in handy here: you're supposed to work fast, keeping the dough cool, and the food processor makes that possible.

You'll see that this is a bit more moist than a lot of crust recipes, but the secret of the alcohol is that it dissolves extremely quickly, leaving your crust perfectly flaky while still giving you a dough that is moist enough to work with.

Place the ball of dough in the fridge for 1hour before working it! Yes, covered, silly. This makes for a more tender crust because it loosens the gluten.  Remember: you have enough for two here, so it is a good idea to separate it into two before putting them in the fridge. The second can keep for a day or two.

When you're ready to roll it out, the ideal is on a silicon pad sprinkled with flour. I won't pretend to know other good alternatives, but metal and marble stay really cold... just sayin. Perhaps on parchment paper, also sprinkled with flour.

Roll starting from the center and moving out, with short gentle rolls, making sure the roller has a bit of flour to keep the dough from sticking. Drape the finished crust over your roller and gently unfold into your pie crust.

If you're highly skilled like Carolyn, you can use this fancy crimping method for the sides.

If you are going to fill the crust with a non-bake filling (French Silk, for example), you'll need to blind bake first. 

All that means is prebaking, but if you just throw the pan in the oven as is, the crust will puff up in the middle, giving you a crust dome instead of a crust that you can fill. Wikihow has a good article on it.

Blind Baking:
1. use a fork to punch a bunch of holes in the bottom of the crust
2. cover it with parchment paper
3. fill the pie with a dry bulk item in the kitchen, or if you're fancy with ceramic pie crust beans you can buy in stores that are fancy like yourself
4. bake.

Flying French Silk Pie: "I believe in a certain way of eating"

I believe in apprenticeship. Somewhere in the transition to modern science we took on a chemical
understanding of the human person and forgot that humans learn from other humans. Slowly. and it with lots of love.

I had the great luck to spend an afternoon last fall with Carolyn Atkinson, the chef and owner of Flying Pi Kitchen in Wilmington, NC, basking in the long and nuanced knowledge of a "from scratch" sage. The original plan was to learn to cook her famous Ginger Pie - think of a gingery chess pie with sweet cream over top - which she believes will be the signature pie of the shop. But I ask a lot of questions, and her responses are immeasurably generous, so before the afternoon was out I had filled my little notebook with a handful of recipes and an infinity of ideas.

It was one of those afternoons that started gently, with a nice cup of tea and a discussion on her inspirations (Alton Brown, Graham Kerr and the Galloping Gourmet), her disappointments with the mediocracy of the modern food supply chain (one year with Sysco Services) and the essentials for a well equipped kitchen (one paring knife, one bread knife, and one chef's knife, along with solid measuring cups, dried potatoes and good spices).

It ended with a pie in hand, popovers in my belly, and a new found passion for the possibilities of from scratch cooking to bring the community together. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task of trying to do her generosity justice in blog form. And so as with all things, I put it off. The notebook I took with me is full of small wisdoms (Don't use any ingredient you wouldn't eat yourself: no one drinks cooking sherry, so don't cook with it!), tips on how to learn to cook (smell everything and notice where you feel it on your tongue as you inhale), and even a bit of world history (Pregnant french women around the world wars were required to take classes on the exact portions needed for their children, creating a nation unconsciously portion controlled individuals!). I will slowly try to share some of this with you.

We will start with French Silk Pie. This no-bake pie recipe is actually just the recipe for the filling, which you pour into an already baked crust and chill. Enjoy and keep an eye out for the next round of recipes.

1 prebaked flying pie crust
1/2c softened butter
(just take it out of the fridge for a few hours before you start)
3/4c caster sugar*
1oz unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled
1t vanilla
3 eggs, lightly beaten

*Caster sugar is just a white sugar that has been ground more finely and is also called baking sugar. If you don't want to buy it, just grind some sugar in a food processor or a coffee grinder.

Prepare you pie crust (Carolyn's version coming soon! but sneak peak, the secret is high proof alcohol), fork the bottom and bake it. Let cool.

In a mixer on medium, beat together the softened butter and the sugar for a good few minutes.

Add the chocolate, making sure it is already cooled, and scraping down the sides to keep the mix homogeneous.

Add one egg at a time, adding the next as soon as you can no longer see the last.

This is an emulsification effect and it should get light and fluffy for you.

Add the vanilla.

Beat for a good five minutes in total.

Pour into pie crust and chill.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Kak: a cookie with barakah

Disclaimer: the directions below are useless...
The Bentounes family lives in what is considered by thousands a sacred place. It is the mother zawiyya to the Alawiyya tariqat. Both the group and the place have continued to grow in number and in square meters since the sheikh Alawi founded both the early 1900s. Almost 100 family members live in various apartments in the house now and hundreds more come regularly for religious ceremonies or on pilgrimage to the burial place of the 3 generations of sheikhs. As this is the subject of my masters thesis, which I am currently doing my best to avoid, lets skip to the food.  
Tasks are shared in the community, especially the most important ones. Making Kak, for example. Think of a british cookie: sweet but crunchy and best with tea. We made hundreds. They made hundreds, I should say. Everyone giggled and said I must be tired and should go... and eventually I went... and they were still at it when I came back hours later.

Ingredients for infinite Kak
(do not, under any circumstances, try to make a full recipe!)
2 kilos flour
4 eggs
500g sugar (2 1/3 c)
1/2 liter vegetable oil
6 tsp baking powder
1-2 cups sesame seeds
l'eau de fleur

In a blender the size of your little sister, mix the flour, sugar, sesame seeds and baking soda.

With the blender going, add one egg at a time, then the oil progressively till it looks a bit like sand, working it all the while as needed to keep it even.

Slowly add the flour water (its a north african ingredient that tastes like the drop of juice you pull out of honeysuckles as a child) until the dough just sticks together in a big ball. It should be a fairly heavy dough, slightly sticky but firm and not stretchy.

Let the dough sit for about 10 minutes, then start breaking into chunks about the size of said little sister's fist.

It seems the key to Kek is this mysterious machine through which the women forced the dough, but hats off to whoever figures that one out because they immediately rolled it back out into a rope.

There is a perfect ratio of length to thickness as you roll. I know because I was corrected many, many times. What is that ratio? I'm pretty sure it is part of the mystical secret that one only receives upon initiation into the tariqat. Something like "here is the prayer you should recite 100 times every morning to get closer to god, and the perfect ratio for kak is 2:13."

Once the dough is rolled back into tubes, cut regularly around the edges, connect into a circle and place on oiled cookie sheets. Note: there is also a perfect distance for each cut. best of luck to you.

Bake. Can't tell you how hot or how long, but don't let them brown or generally overcook, they will get too dry. I would guess 175C for 12 minutes. Do a few batches and find your right ratio.

Share with hundreds of friends and send them around the globe in suitcases destined for distant relatives. Thankfully, they keep fresh for weeks on end. Its probably the Barakah.