Category Archives: cooking

How I Learned to Roll Pie Dough

Yesterday, as I was rolling the dough for our quiche, Clif said, “You sure do know how to roll pie dough.”

I laughed. “And no wonder. I’ve rolled out dough for hundreds of pies.”

Not because our family eats so much pie—although we like pie as well as the next family—but instead because when I was a young woman, I worked in the bakery in one of the dining halls at Colby College in Waterville. Everything was made from scratch, including the pies, and we would spend entire afternoons rolling dough.

Fran York was the head baker, and she was the nicest boss I have ever had. Soft spoken and cheerful, Fran set a calm but hard-working tone, and there was never an ounce of drama in her bakery. She had that elusive quality that so many bosses don’t have—-in her own quiet way, she made us want to work as hard as we possibly could. But she never badgered, harangued, or scolded us. We just wanted to do our best for Fran.

She came in early and worked until 3:00 p.m., leaving us, her assistants, to finish the work we had started. On one particular day, it was pies.

“We need one hundred and fifty” Fran said. “But if you do seventy-five, that will be fine. We can roll out the rest tomorrow morning.”

Then she left, and there were two of us, one of whom was Fran’s mother. Unfortunately, I can’t remember her name, but she was a lively woman, a southerner, an extrovert—unlike Fran—and oh so fun to work with. “Son a’gun!” was one of her favorite sayings when something surprised her. Like Fran, she was a hard worker.

“What do you say?” she asked after Fran had left. “Let’s see if we can roll out all those pies by the time we leave.”

And so we began. The flour flew, the rolling pins thumped against the big work table, and pie after pie was made. Five, ten, twenty-five, fifty.

Fran’s mother sang, “Can she make a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy? Can she make a cherry pie, charming Billy?”

We were, of course, making cherry pies, and I grinned as Fran’s mother sang.

We reached one hundred. “We’re almost there!” Fran’s mother cried.

More flour flew, and the thumping of the rolling pins grew louder. “One hundred and fifty,” came the triumphant call. “With plenty of time to clean up.”

My apron was covered with flour, and my face had a fair share, too. But I felt triumphant. We had exceeded Fran’s expectations.

The next day when I came in, Fran said, “My, you two did a good job yesterday. Look at all those pies ready to bake.”

I felt as though I had been given a prize—praise from Fran.

“Oh, we worked right along, didn’t we, Laurie?” said Fran’s mother.

We certainly did.

And forty years later, how did my one little quiche turn out?

“Pretty darned good,” my Yankee husband said.

Addendum: About all those cherry pies: I forget to mention that the pie filling and the dough were made ahead of time for us. All we had to do was roll. And, it took us hours. We were working the late shift, and we rolled until the end.

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Success with Red Bean Soup

Yesterday, before doing errands, Clif and I chopped vegetables and chicken sausage and put them—along with chicken broth, water, tomato paste, and spices—in the slow-cooker. We added plenty of red beans. Finally, my not-so-secret ingredient, a little soy sauce.

Off we went to do errands, and when we came home—voilà!—the house was filled with the spicy smell of simmering soup.

Clif’s Yankee pronouncement? “Pretty darned good.”

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Making Red Bean Soup on a Snowy Day

This morning, when I looked out my window, I saw falling snow and a gray day.

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I couldn’t catch the falling snow, only the gray

 

A perfect day to make red bean soup, in honor not only of Esther and her mother but also in honor of soup month, which January apparently is. (In Maine, January is an appropriately frosty time to celebrate soup.)

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I found some beans from Maine, and I soaked them last night.This morning I simmered them, and soon into the slow-cooker the red beans will go along with green beans, summer squash, and green peppers. (Those last three had been frozen then thawed.) I will also add some chicken sausage.

I’ll make biscuits, of course. After Esther’s story of walking home in the cold and the dark to red bean soup and biscuits, how could I leave out the biscuits?

I expect my soup will different from the one that Esther’s mother used to make, but no matter. It will be red bean soup. Served with biscuits.

A New Convection Oven: Success with Biscuits!

After much deliberation and angst, Clif and I finally made a decision about our new electric range, which has made us so unhappy with its burning ways. After doing a lot of research, we found that it cost less to buy a free-standing convection oven than to return the Whirlpool electric range we just bought and replace it with an electric range with a convection oven. Therefore, we bought a free-standing convection oven—a Hamilton Beach 31103A. It came yesterday, and we were able to rearrange things in the kitchen so that no counter space was lost.

The many comments on this blog were a big help. Thanks to all of you who shared your oven stories. It made us realize two things—new standard electric ovens have a tendency to burn baked goods, and convection ovens do a beautiful job when it comes to baking.

This was reinforced the other night when we had dinner at our friend Mary Jane’s house. There were nine of us in all, and Mary Jane, who is a terrific cook, had us recount the story of our oven woes.

Richard Fortin, our library’s director, was there, and as soon as we had finished telling our sad tale, he said, “The same thing happened to us. We were burning things that we baked. But we have a convection setting in our oven, and as soon as we started baking on that setting, everything came out just fine.”

Then there was the matter of glass top versus coil top. Richard continued, “I once had a stove with a glass top, and I ruined it using cast iron.”

There were protests from some of the other guests, who successfully used cast iron on glass tops without marring the surface. It does seem as though you have to be careful not to slide the cast iron over the glass top. Instead, it has to be lifted up. Richard noted that he wasn’t that careful of a cook, and neither are we. I can easily envision sliding the cast-iron frying pan over the top. For us, coil top is best.

The next day, Richard called and told me that Kenmore has a coil-top electric range with a convection oven, and it is listed for $630. (Clif, in doing stove research, found that Consumer Reports gives Kenmore high ratings.) Dave’s, unfortunately, does not sell Kenmore, but if we had known then what we know now, then we would have gone with the Kenmore.

But as I mentioned above, it was more economical for us to buy the free-standing convection oven—there was a very good deal through Amazon—and we now have two ovens. While the Whirlpool does a terrible job with baked goods, it does a fine job with dishes that require less precision, such as chicken, baked potatoes, and casseroles. It also does a great job broiling. Finally, the free-standing convection oven, which takes a 9x 13 pan, is much more energy efficient than the larger range.

This morning, we tested our new convection oven. I made a batch of biscuits, and success! The biscuits came out exactly as they should, with nicely browned tops. The bottoms were also brown but not crunchy, the way they were when I baked a batch in the Whirpool. Instead, they were soft, just the way biscuits ought to be.

Biscuits baking in the new convection oven
Biscuits baking in the new convection oven

 

Biscuits the way they should be, brown but not crunch
Biscuits the way they should be, brown but not crunchy

Next I will try making gingersnap cookies, which I could not get right in the Whirlpool, no matter how much I fiddled with the time or the temperature. I’ll be sure to report back.

Here is a recap for readers who will be buying a new electric range in the near future. Conventional electric ovens, even the more expensive ones, are not reliable when it comes to baking. Bottoms are burnt and middles aren’t cooked enough. However, many electric ranges—coil top as well as glass top—come with a convection setting, and this is the way to go if you like to bake.  Whatever brand you choose, be sure to do some research from a disinterested source such as Consumer Reports. All ranges are not created equal.

Finally, thanks to Shannon for sending us the review of the Hamilton Beach Convection Oven. We ended up buying a larger model, but that review helped steer us in the right direction.

 

The Trouble with Gingersnaps

Yesterday, I mixed up a batch of gingersnaps so that I could bring cookies to my friend Esther. Because my stove is new—we’ve had it for a week—I decided to test one cookie to get a sense of the baking time. In my old stove, eleven minutes would give me a good cookie. This stove seemed to run a little hotter, so I decided to try nine minutes.

The results, dear readers, were not good—burnt on the bottom.  I tried eight minutes, again, with one cookie, and it was slightly burnt with a gooey middle. I turned the temperature down from 375° to 350°. No luck. I still had cookies that were burnt on the bottom and gooey in the middle.

One burnt gingersnap
One burnt gingersnap

I called Dave’s Appliance, the store in Winthrop where we bought the stove, and on Thursday they will be sending someone over to look at it. I’ve no doubt the stove will either be fixed or replaced, and I’ll soon be on my way to be making perfect gingersnaps. (I froze the dough in balls, and I’ll bake them as soon as I have a working oven.)

Next week is Thanksgiving, and I started thinking about what I would do if I were hosting the meal this year, and I didn’t have a reliable oven. As it turns out, I’m not hosting Thanksgiving dinner, but cooking nerd that I am, it gave me pleasure to come up with a solution anyway. Here is the plan I hit upon. I have two slow-cookers, and in them I would cook two five-pound chickens on top of potatoes and carrots. Gravy is always made ahead of time—I’ve got one batch in the freezer now, and by this Thursday I’ll have another batch made. Green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole could be heated in the microwave. I might take a chance on using the oven to keep the casseroles warm, turning the oven to a very low heat and setting the racks as high as they would go while still having room for casserole dishes. Stuffing would have to be made outside the bird, in a casserole dish heated the same as the other two.

That leaves dessert. Fortunately, the top of the stove works just fine. I could make pudding for chocolate cream pies and use store-bought crumb crusts.

So there! I could do it. It wouldn’t exactly be traditional, but it would be good enough given I didn’t have a reliable oven.

I must admit that I miss my old stove. And Esther is going to be disappointed when I arrive without gingersnaps.

Ah, well! At least I have a good story to tell her—the saga of the new stove.

 

First Bread

Yesterday, I baked our first loaves of bread in the new oven. My fears— or concerns, if you will—turned out to be completely justified. In my old oven, it took thirty-three minutes to bake the bread to golden perfection. I decided to see if the same was true for my new oven. It was not.

The bread, although not burnt, came out a little too dark, a little overbaked, and thus a little dry.  As Clif and I mostly think of bread as toast—oh, how we love toast—this dry bread is not as bad as it sounds. However, next time I make bread, I will bake it for thirty minutes and go from there.

First bread, a little too dark
First bread, a little too dark

The next challenge will be gingersnaps, which I’ll be making on Monday to bring to my friend Esther when I go for a visit on Tuesday.  In my old oven, eleven minutes gave you a perfect cookie that had a little snap and a little chew all at the same time. I’ve decided to try nine minutes.

All this fussing about time reminds me that my old oven and I were quite the team. I knew just how long it took to bake family favorites. Now, I will have to recalculate the times for many of the things I bake.

No wonder the old stove seemed like a friend. People and their tools, their equipment, and their appliances can form quite a bond.

Farewell, Old Friend. Hello, New Friend.

Yesterday was quite the day at the little house in the big woods. Two men from Dave’s Appliance delivered our new stove. It was also a bittersweet day. As I noted in a previous post, we bought that stove—a basic electric—in the mid-1990s, and I have literally cooked thousands of meals on it. I’ve fed family and friends. Really, for the past twenty years, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t use the stove.

But the time had come—there were just too many things that were broken—and it was with a lump in my throat that I watched the two delivery men take out the old stove. Out they wheeled it to the big truck, and back in they came with the new stove, another basic electric. Within thirty minutes, the job was done. Farewell, farewell old friend.

Clif and I eschewed the electric stoves with the flat, glass tops. We were told we could not use cast iron or any other pot with a texture on the bottom as they would scratch the top. We asked ourselves, how in the world could we make home fries without using a cast-iron frying pan?  Clearly, we couldn’t. The cast-iron frying pan make those home fries so crispy, so right. Therefore, we went with the traditional coil burners.

After the delivery men left, it didn’t take us long to make inaugural cups of tea. As the water heated, I marveled at how the front burner actual worked and how the oven door stayed open all by itself. I  didn’t have to rest it against my knees to peek into the oven. I didn’t have to lock the door for it to remain shut.

Welcome, new friend! I hope you stay at the little house in the big woods for many years.

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The Generosity of Apple Pie

Yesterday, I made two apple pies. One to bring to a potluck and one to share today with our friends Paul and Judy. To me, there is something very satisfying about making pies, especially apple.

First there is the peeling and slicing of the apples. Into a big bowl they go, and I stir in the sugar and spices.

Second there is the dough—the cutting, the mixing, the rolling out. By the time I am done there is a grand explosion of flour, a glorious mess, and why this gives me so much pleasure I cannot say. (I do want to note that this sort of mess did not give my Franco-American mother any pleasure at all, and her way of dealing with my messy habits was to leave the kitchen and read while I was cooking.)

A grand explosion of flour
A grand explosion of flour

 

Then there is the filling of the pie—in this case with fresh Maine apples. My favorite part is the crimping of the edges. I love pinching that dough. Finally, I cut a the hole in the middle of the pie, a trick my mother and I learned from Addie O’Keefe, a neighbor of ours in North Vassalboro. Lord, that woman could cook, can, and make preserves. Addie took my mother, a “city” girl, under her wing and taught her what she needed to know about living in the country.

The pie with crimped edges and a hole in the middle
The pie with crimped edges and a hole in the middle

 

From time to time, I think of Addie’s generosity.  She was not a young woman, and she had her own big house and gardens to take care of. However, Addie found the time to teach my mother practical country skills. In turn, when Addie was dying, my mother sat by her side and held her hand. The wheel of generosity turned from Addie to my mother.

But back to pie, specifically apple pie. Its next gift is the lovely smell when it cooks, the bubbling of apple, the mingling of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Someone coming to the house, upon opening the door, would immediately know that apple pies were baking.

After all the mess, all the fuss, there is—ta dah!—the baked pie with its brown, flaky crust and tangy apple filling.

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The finished pie

 

M.F.K Fisher, the great food writer, thought that food was much more than a way to nourish the body. It also nourished the soul and expressed a variety of emotions, depending on the cook and the eater. How right she was.

And how evocative something as simple as an apple pie can be, taking me back to my childhood, reminding me of generosity.

 

 

Vegetables with Peanut Sauce over Rice—and a Blooper

Before I launch into a description of this week’s recipe using Farmer Kev’s delicious vegetables, I thought I would describe a little blooper I made in the kitchen last night. All right, it was actually a big blooper. I am sharing this because I believe it’s good to admit that even those who have been cooking for a very long time can still make mistakes. (So take heart, beginning cooks!)

Here’s what happened. I had marinated tofu. I had pea pods courtesy of Farmer Kev.  Why not stir fry them together, put them on rice, and drizzle a homemade peanut sauce over it all? Then, of course, sprinkle with crushed peanuts. This I did, and how nice it all looked.

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There was just one teensy-weensy problem, which Clif and I discovered as we started eating.

“Wow!” I said. “These pea pods are tough.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Clif admitted.

“And they don’t have much taste,” I added.

Then it immediately came to me what the problem was. These weren’t sugar snaps; these were peas to be shelled. Oh, how we laughed at Laurie’s mistake as we stopped eating to shell the slimy pods. Miraculously, even though the pods had only been lightly blanched, the peas inside were cooked enough to eat.

After the peas were shelled, the dish was pretty darned good, as my Yankee husband observed. So good that there weren’t any leftovers, even though there should have been. (Clif is what you might call a good eater, especially when peanut sauce is involved.)

Blooper aside, this dish, like fried rice, is wonderfully versatile. A variety of summer vegetables could be used: Broccoli, zucchini, summer squash, green beans, carrots. Shelled peas or sugar snaps, but probably not both.

I marinated extra-firm tofu in a homemade teriyaki sauce, baked it for 45 minutes, then cut it in cubes to stir-fry. This might be one extra step that a busy home cook would rather not take. Although the marinated tofu adds a nice texture and taste to the dish, it is not an essential element. Just vegetables could be used. Leftover chicken could be added.

The vegetables could be steamed or stir-fried. If stir-fried, then chopped garlic or onion could be added for additional flavor.

So this week, I’m not going to give a recipe per se. Just cook up some rice, steam or stir-fry some vegetables, drizzle with peanut sauce, and sprinkle with crushed peanuts. And for goodness’ sake, don’t confuse sugar snaps with shell peas.

Here is a recipe for the peanut sauce. It’s adapted from a recipe from Miserly Moms: Living Well on Less in a Tough Economy.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup of peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup of warm water (Use less for a thicker sauce)
  • 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of vinegar—wine, cider, or rice
  • 1/4 teaspoon of hot pepper flakes (More could be added for those who like it hot.)

Directions

  1. Whisk together the peanut butter and water until smooth.
  2. Add the soy sauce, vinegar, and hot pepper flakes. Whisk again.
  3. Drizzle over vegetables and rice. Drizzle over vegetables and noodles. Use as a dipping sauce for chicken. This simple but tasty sauce can be used in a number of ways

 

 

Mediterranean Scrambled Eggs

The greens are still a-comin’, but we are going to turn our attention to another vegetable that can sometimes be such a nuisance that friends will run shrieking if they see you approaching with a bagful. Or a bushel full, as the case may be. This might be apocryphal, but I have heard heartbreaking stories of how these vegetables are just abandoned on the steps of family, friends, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers. Sometimes with a note, most times not.

I am, of course, referring to zucchini—or, courgettes as they are called across the pond. Right now, in Maine, they are little and trim, almost sweet looking, and this week they were innocently tucked at the bottom of my CSA bin from Farmer Kev. But before long, in the garden, these sweet little veggies will grow and grow and if left untended on the vine, become large enough to be used as a murder weapon.

And let’s be honest. When it comes to taste, zucchini is definitely the bland cousin of the vegetable world. (Perhaps that’s why they grow so large. To compensate for their muted flavor.) While peas, corn, tomatoes, and delicata squash make us rejoice, all too often zucchini makes us sigh.

Nevertheless, zucchini has its uses. Grated, it adds a nice texture to muffins or bread, and its mild flavor complements tomato dishes. Last but certainly not least, zucchini is very economical. As indicated above, sometimes you don’t even have to pay for it.

While the zucchini is still in its slender, innocent phase, I decided to take what business people might call a proactive approach and find ways to use those little darlings.

I wondered, what if you grate a small zucchini, add some garlic, sauté the mixture in a skillet for a couple of minutes, add eggs beaten with milk, and sprinkle with basil? Scramble the whole mixture, then cover with grated cheese. What would happen?

I’ll tell you what happens. You get a dish so tasty your Yankee husband not only says “Pretty darned good” but also adds “This would make an elegant dish for brunch.” Now, how many times have you ever heard the word “zucchini” paired with the word “elegant”?

Best of all, despite the chopping, this dish goes together fairly quickly, making it a perfect week-night supper. Add some homemade bread and some sliced cucumbers. Maybe even a white wine with a fresh taste. (Don’t even consider a Riesling.) Not only will you have made use of zucchini, but you will also have a delicious meal.

Note: Fresh basil is absolutely essential for this dish. If you don’t have some growing in your garden or in a pot, then spring for it at the grocery store or at a farmers’ market.

As with all dishes, get everything mise en place.
As with all dishes, get everything mise en place.

 

Sauté the grated zucchini and garlic in olive oil.
Sauté the grated zucchini and garlic in olive oil.

 

Add the basil and the beaten eggs.
Add the basil and the beaten eggs.

 

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Scramble.

 

Sprinkle with grated cheese and cover.
Sprinkle with grated cheese and cover so that the cheese will melt.

 

Voilà! A dish so good you'll want to lick the plate.
Voilà! A dish so good you’ll want to lick the plate

 

Mediterranean Scrambled Eggs
Makes two hearty servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup grated zucchini
  • 1 cup grated cheese (I used a sharp cheddar)
  • 2 tablespoons of minced basil
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 4 large eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon of milk
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. On medium, heat olive oil in a skillet. Sauté the garlic and the zucchini for two or three minutes.
  2. Add the beaten eggs and the basil.
  3. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Scramble away.
  5. When the eggs are done, sprinkle with grated cheese, cover, and turn off the heat. Let set until the cheese is melted.
  6. Serve and eat immediately.