Sunday, June 17, 2012

Progress and Pie

Today's puzzle - what the $#@!! is going on here??? (see below)

At the present moment, writing about my business is rather like reporting the function of a healthy immune system. Things are humming along, with all the organs in the background doing their jobs. A comforting picture, but boring.
The town of Berkeley Heights New Jersey has my building permit application. My plumber is waiting in the wings, as are my equipment and raw materials suppliers. My packaging designer is on her third draft, my business partner is reviewing the packaging copy, and I’m waiting for several vendors to call me with estimates. I have finished one thing: a short promotional video, embedded here: 
So, clever music and a pretty actress (that’s my wife, Leslie) aside, there’s not much of interest going on with my business, gentle readers. So I’m going to write about pie.
Pic crust tools and ingredients chilling in the 'fridge

For the past year or so I’ve been chiding Gary Lincoff, author of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, whenever he posts a pie photograph on his Facebook page. “You need to make a gluten-free version!” I nag. At which I can just about hear a big chunk of his followers saying, “Yuk!”
It’s easy to wince at the concept of gluten-free pie crusts if you’ve never tasted a good one. However, since half the effort of making a wheat flour crust consists of preventing gluten from over-developing, removing gluten from the formula doesn't create much loss.
A scant eighth teaspoon of Xanthan gum - crucial ingredient for GF crust
I’ve been rolling pie crusts since I was 4 or 5. Which is not to say I’m any kind of baking expert; I’m not. I do love pie, however, and am quick to judge crust quality. (Point of historical fact: my mother’s relatives, the Mallery family, used to have reunions every August. There was silent but intense competition among the women as to who made the best pie. Which was emphatically not about the filling, but the crust.) So when I say I’ve got a good gluten-free crust formula, please take me seriously.
Half a stick of butter (4 tablespoons)
Although I’ve blogged about pies before, it’s time to write a very specific recipe if for no other reason that Mr. Lincoff has come out with a new book, The Joy of Foraging. He’s so good at finding wild edibles there’s sure to be Facebook posts all summer regarding pies made with found fruits. I’m thinking that people like me (ie - celiac sufferers) deserve to enjoy what nature offers in final, sugar-drenched, baked form too. So here goes.
A great deal of what happens in the ideal pie crust has to do with how the ingredients are handled. Therefore, the type of flour is not totally critical. That said, I believe two things are important about flour: it needs to be Easy, and it needs to taste Good.
Unfortunately there is no single gluten-free grain flour that will make great piecrust. All GF flours are blends - grain flour + starch flour + dough enhancers/gluten substitutes. You can buy pre-mixed flours, and that’s great, but in my house there’s so many flours I can make special blends for different types of pies (more on that, below). The one thing all my blends have in common? They’re based on a simple formula: Bette Hagman’s Featherlite blend.
The late Ms. Hagman came up with this mixture decades ago. In my opinion it can’t be beat for sweets, although I sometimes modify it. The recipe: 1 cup white rice flour, 1 cup corn starch, 1 cup tapioca starch, 1 tablespoon potato flour. 
There’s an easy way to blend these dry ingredients: put them into a big ziplock bag, leave a good amount of air,  zip the bag closed and shake it like mad. Depending on the size of your bag (and your willingness to clean up should the seal fail) you can make rather large quantities this way.
Once you’ve got the flour you can focus on handling, the first step to which is, chill everything.
Thin slices of cold butter
A pie crust should be nicely flaky. To accomplish that, unsalted butter is the best shortening. Butter contains water, which, under the right circumstances, changes quickly to steam and lifts surrounding dough. As this is going on the butter melts, coating the flour grains. In combination with the naturally occurring sugars in the grains, the fat-soaked flour turns crispy. 
That’s a lot to happen all at once - or at least in fast sequence - so to make all the pieces play together it’s critical to prep them. Which is where temperature comes in. You’ll want the butter to be flat sheets, thin enough to melt fast but thick enough to perform lift. And, you’ll want the butter to be solid until the instant the crust hits the oven. That’s what keeps the most water in the butter and makes the tastiest flakes. Therefore, you want the butter to be cold throughout the crust-making process.
I keep butter, flour, dough enhancers, a wooden work surface, a bench knife and a thick ceramic mixing bowl in the refrigerator, waiting for fresh fruit. Once a harvest comes in I figure out how much pie Leslie and I can eat, and get working. (BTW - that photo at the top of the page? When I make crust on a hot day I chill the rolling board further with whatever is in the top of my freezer.)
Ready to be chopped and ground
Making pie crust is yet another example of the superiority of weighing, rather than dry measuring, ingredients. Keep in mind that digital kitchen scales are now quite cheap. I see them in pharmacies for $10.
The basic weight ratio of pie crust ingredients is: 3 parts flour, 2 parts shortening, 1 part ice water.  Experience tells me I can make a quarter-sheet of mini-pies  - enough to last about a week in my household - with a crust recipe founded on 1/2 stick of butter. If I reach into the ’fridge and find 1/3 stick or 2/3 or 5/8 stick, it hardly matters. I just weigh the butter; all else follows. If you’re bad at math like me, divide the butter weight in half. That gives you the ice water weight. Multiply the ice water weight by three. That gives you the flour weight.
You can make a decent pie crust using the ingredients above, if you use good technique. However I do some modifications that work wonders. For a half butter stick quantity, I add two teaspoons of rice vinegar to the water (weighing both together), and substitute 1/4 the flour with almond meal, which I make by coarse chopping almonds, then running them through my spice grinder until they threaten to become almond butter. (Admittedly it is easier to buy almond flour, which is available at many grocery stores.) The flour should also get a scant 1/8 tsp xanthan gum, a pinch of salt, and two teaspoons of sugar. 
Butter shavings in cold flour
If I’m making a pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, pecan or “Derby” pie, I use teff flour in my featherlite blend instead of rice flour. Dark teff is earthier and rye-like; ivory teff is spicier and can have notes of fish (try it for a seafood quiche).
This is the crucial part, and the only kitchen task I try to accomplish at speed. Keeping the ingredients cold is important, and a bit challenging, especially in the summer.
Put the chilled rolling board on your work counter. Drape a couple of layers of plastic wrap - big, generous pieces at least 18” long - over the board. Set the cold bowl and a bench knife on the board. Stick the water + vinegar in the freezer.  Unwrap the butter. Measure flour, sugar, xanthan gum and salt into the bowl, and stir to mix.
The well awaits
Using the cold bench knife, slice the butter across its end into pieces @ 1/16” thick, tossing into the flour as you cut. From time to time stir the flour with your fingertips so that the butter chunks get coated and stay cold. When you have all the butter cut, toss the flour/butter lightly to distribute chunks evenly.
Using just your fingertips, press each piece of butter through the flour and against the side of the bowl to squeeze it into a big flat flake. Toss from time to time. When all or most of the butter is pressed, overturn the bowl onto the plastic sheets. Gather the blend into a mound and form a well in the center. Retrieve the ice water, punch through the thin skin of ice on top, and pour it into the well. 
First fold. Note flakes of butter and oozing water
Toss the flour that forms the “hillsides” down onto the well until the wet dough/water is covered. Pick up one end of the plastic wrap, then fold it onto the other end, enclosing the dough. Press and pound until the mix is 1/2” to 3/4” thick. Unwrap the top layer of plastic, scraping any dough that sticks back onto the dough mass, and use the bench knife to fold the dough into thirds, like a business letter.
At this moment you are probably wondering what kind of madman I am, calling what’s on your work surface “dough”. It’s a dry-on-the-outside, sticky-in-the-middle, water-oozing, semi-rectangular mass. But bear with me.
Third fold. Slowly, the mess becomes dough.
Close up the plastic again and press/pound the dough flat, trying to work the “package” so that when you fold it the next time the folds will be at 90 degrees to the last set. 
Repeat these cover-pound-uncover-fold-re-cover actions 4 to 6 times, until the dough begins to look like dough. Then wrap it up in the plastic and stick it back in the ‘fridge, where it needs to rest 6 or more hours before being rolled.
And that’s really all there is to it - with but one additional thought: When you roll the dough you’ll get better results if your rolling board is chilled and coated with a rubbed-in tablespoon or two of superfine brown rice flour.
Ready for refrigeration. Several hours of rest will allow all the water
to be absorbed and the dough will be ready to roll.
I’m not going to suggest pie fillings. That’s best left to folks like Gary, who seem to have more ideas for wild edibles than I ever will. But I will tell you my absolute favorite: wild huckleberries. I wish I had some right now!

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