Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Kaci's Sweet Strawberry Pie

The first time I met Kaci, I was handing my little one over to her care at our church's nursery. I noticed what appeared to be a baby bump and against all of my better instincts, I asked "Are you expecting?" Thankfully, she said yes and that she would be finding out the baby's gender later that week. She already had twin boys at home.

Well, a year and one more boy later, our bible study play dates were heavily male, with five energetic boys between us. We have both bonded over our not so secret desires to dress a little girl and simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief that God gave us boys.

In the three or so years that I have known Kaci, we have fellowshipped together in four bible studies, transitioned from our cozy, one hundred person church to a much larger congregation and began serving together in our church's children's ministry.

Over time, we have created one of those wonderfully rare friendships that takes place largely outside of our children. This means we are actually able to have real and complete conversations, without interruptions for more Cheerios, a nose wipe, a kissed boo-boo or a potty-training trip to the bathroom.

I am acutely aware that when any of my friends' parents experience an illness, I am probably the last person they want to talk to. My story does not end well - my dad lost his battle with cancer nearly four years ago. Yet, Kaci and I have bonded over cancer. She is the rare friend who doesn't avoid talk of chemo treatments, hospice and how her boys will remember their grandfather when he is gone. I know this cannot be easy for her and I am grateful for her vulnerability and trust in me.

But, sharing with Kaci has been healing for me, too. I have been able to confide in her about so many things in my life: my anger, sadness and eventual acceptance at losing my father, complex and changing family relationships in the aftermath of his passing and even my "Mommy guilt" when Wilson knocked out his front tooth. She has always been a calming force in my life, speaking truth in love.

One of my favorite parts of Bake Somebody Happy is pairing people with their pie. When I was pondering what to make for Kaci, one word kept resounding in my head - "sweet." Then, it hit me - it was like a sign. Ok, it actually was a sign. Kaci's "Sweet Strawberry" pie.

I splurged a whopping $10 and purchased a half pallet of beautifully ripe strawberries from a local roadside stand. I am so spoiled that I can walk just a few blocks from home to buy berries from the very person who grew and picked them fresh from their field earlier that day. And as an added bonus, the recipe only called for four pints of berries, so I was looking forward to a little mid-day snacking.
I prepared my usual pie crust with a combination of butter and vegetable shortening. After several hours resting in the fridge, I plopped the chilled ball of dough out onto my heavily floured cutting board and began to roll it out.

This seems like as good a time as any to mention that I absolutely love my cutting board. Will made it from a slab of butcher block leftover from our kitchen remodel several years ago. It is large, hefty and solid and looks just like the fancier and much more expensive versions you find at any housewares store. I have such a resourceful husband!

When I began researching strawberry pie several weeks ago, I was both surprised and bothered to find that most recipes called for strawberry "goo" from the produce section. Well, no shortcuts allowed here. I mean, by the time you fill a prepared pie crust and pour prepackaged glaze all over the top of a pint of strawberries, have you really made your own pie at all?

So, I attempted to perfect my own glaze. Puréed strawberries seemed like a natural base, so I whipped up a few less than attractive berries in the blender and added the purée to a saucepan of sugar, cornstarch, salt and gelatin. I boiled the entire mixture until it began to froth, then calmed into a dark, thick gel.

While the glaze cooled, I rinsed and stemmed the remaining berries, cutting the larger strawberries in half and leaving the smaller ones intact. Then, I folded the berries into the glaze until they were all sticky and glistening.
I scraped the entire bowl of strawberry goodness into the pie crust, taking extra consideration to carefully arrange the berries face up. Then, I placed the pie into the refrigerator to chill.
And while I was at it, why not tick another box off my checklist of baking firsts - homemade whipped cream. To my surprise, I had all of the ingredients on hand. So, I whisked the heavy whipping cream into soft peaks before adding a sprinkling of powdered sugar and a splash of vanilla extract. 

Now, I am not typically a fan of whipped cream. In fact, I always order my Grande soy iced mochas sans whip. But, I have to agree with my boys on this one - whipped cream from scratch is pretty "yummy."
Strawberry pie has always been my personal favorite. I have looked forward to the arrival of strawberry season since childhood dinners with my parents at Marie Callenders. Just seeing those beautiful pies piled high with red berries in the pie case made me want to skip straight to dessert. But, as this pie journey is teaching me, homemade is nearly always better, especially when shared with a good friend whose natural sweetness gives me a reason to bake.

"All we ever have is one wonderful now after another. So in this one golden moment of precious life — pick the strawberries." - Kate Bartolotta

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pie it Forward Chocolate Pecan Pie

When my brother-in-law, Brad, asked if I would be interested in donating a pie to raffle off at the Orangevale Food Bank's first annual Spaghetti Feed fundraiser, I was both flattered and nervous. Up until now, only friends and family had eaten my pies. And let's face it - they are probably not going to tell me that they are anything other than good. But strangers?

So, I was going to play it safe and bake my first repeat. The criteria: 1) I had to have tasted the completed product, 2) it had to be a crowd pleasing flavor and 3) it had to have eye appeal. That left my two-crust apple (Bye Bye Miss Megan Apple Pie) and the chocolate pecan (Mom's Not Your Mama's Pecan Pie). Both winners in my book. But the pecan had a slight advantage. While the base recipe is my grandmother's, I have added several of my own twists to make it a true Bake Somebody Happy original. So, Pie it Forward Chocolate Pecan Pie it is.
I have to admit, it is so much easier baking a repeat. There is a comfort level in knowing how things are supposed to look every step of the way. For example, this particular pie puffs up like a marshmallow in the oven. And although the deflating is alarming at first, it eventually settles down uniformly. Still, I held my breath.
I am so inspired by the wonderful work the Orangevale Food Bank is doing in our community and I am honored to be able to use my humble little pie for a greater good. When you think about it, baking pies for those you love and helping families in need are not so different after all. It's really all about blessing and nurturing those around us - with our resources, our time and our words. And a little pie never hurt.
"Never doubt that a small, committed group of people with pies can change the world. 
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Subcomandante Tofutti

Pie it Forward Update: In what I can only explain as total kismet, my one and only blog follower, Jaime, had the winning raffle ticket for the chocolate pecan pie at the food bank fundraiser this evening! Thank you so much for your kind words and loyal blog reading, Jaime. I hope you enjoyed your pie (and also that Grant realized he can pick the pecans off the top fairly easily). Cheers!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Brad's Boozy Caramel Apple Pie

I had just graduated from college and moved back home to look for a job when my sister, Megan, and I began attending our church's young adult group. Megan quickly caught the eye of a college student named Brad and they soon began dating. Being single myself, I was often the third wheel to their lovebird activities. But while Megan was away at school, Brad and I were left to fend for ourselves.

The more time I spent with Brad - playing Scrabble (he never let me win), eating sushi and even camping - the more he became the little brother I never had. He took note of all my irrational fears and never missed a chance to poke fun at me. We even bickered like brother and sister.

In 2003, Megan and Brad were married, and I officially gained a brother. Brad has been there for all of my adult life. He was an usher at my wedding, came to the hospital to meet both of my boys the day they were born and was by my side when my dad lost his battle with cancer.

But, as the years have passed, the time we spend together seems to have dwindled to holidays and the rare family get together. Brad is quite possibly the busiest man I know, married to the busiest woman I know. There just isn't time to play Scrabble the way there was before mortgages, children and family obligations. But, that doesn't mean I don't miss those days.

Brad is also the most generous person I know. It is so rare that those who have been so richly blessed bless others in the capacity that he does. My family and I have been the recipient of Brad's generosity countless times. But, the real mark of a giver is giving to strangers when you have nothing to gain.

Brad's giving recently reached new heights with the fulfillment of his passion to open a local food closet. Now, he literally helps feed hundreds of families in need as the Director at the Orangevale Food Bank. I think anyone who is that dedicated to making sure other's bellies are full should be fed, too. So, Brad, grab a fork. There's Boozy Caramel Apple Pie coming your way.

The thing that sets this pie apart from any other apple pie, or caramel apple pie for that matter, is the addition of red wine. Now, I am not a wine drinker. I couldn't tell a Cabernet from a Merlot to save my life. But, Brad sure could. Good grief - the man has his own wine cellar and tasting room in his home. And did I mention he grows his own grapes and bottles his own wine? Yep, he knows his stuff. So, red wine caramel sauce was sure to be a hit.

But, I was clearly going to need some advice from a more sophisticated palette, so I picked my mom's ear about inexpensive red wine varietals. She suggested a bottle of Layer Cake. Okay, maybe I could get on board with the wine thing after all. I mean, anything named "layer cake" must be yummy, right? The lady in the wine department at Whole Foods confirmed that she thought the Malbec would be a delicious addition to a pie. And bonus points for a pretty label. Sold!
I find that a lot of my pie-related stress can be traced back to the fact that I typically begin baking at 8:00 pm, after the boys have gone to bed. Although this schedule enables me to bake without the ever interrupting "Mommy...," after three hours of pie, I am usually totally exhausted and ready for bed myself. So, this time, I planned ahead. I prepared my pie dough early in the morning, wrapped it in Saran Wrap and put it back into the fridge to chill until I would roll it out that evening.

This was also the first time my children have seen me prepare a pie. Typically, they wake up and Voila - the pie fairy has paid us a visit. As you can see, my four year old, Wilson, was fascinated by the yummy, sticky mess. He is a regular "pie maker" in training.
I also planned ahead by beginning my caramel sauce in the morning. Or, at least, I attempted to. Pinterest taught me to make caramel by placing an unopened can of condensed milk in the Crock-Pot on low for eight hours. So easy. Alas, this technique does not work with evaporated milk, which is what I mistakenly grabbed off the grocery store shelf amidst breaking up fights between my boys and trying to keep Henry from climbing out of the cart altogether. I did not realize the err of my ways until I opened the can at 8:30 pm and found unaltered evaporated milk. Not caramel.

The insecure baker in me said, "See? I told you you couldn't do this. You clearly don't know how to bake. You should just give up." But, my husband, who is usually wiser and less hard on me than my inner voice, said, "I never really did like that Crock-Pot caramel sauce anyway. I think this is a happy accident. Let's make caramel from scratch." Armed with an online tutorial, a cup of sugar, several tablespoons of butter and some heavy whipping cream, we somehow ended up with caramel. Not just any caramel mind you, but amazing, delicious caramel! Caramel you can't stop dipping your finger into. The addition of several tablespoons of red wine only heightened it's richness. Happy accident indeed!
While the caramel cooled, I cored and thinly sliced several peeled Granny Smith apples before tossing them in a large bowl with flour and cinnamon. Then, I stacked layer after layer of apples and caramel sauce until the pie crust was overflowing.
But, the pie was missing something. It seemed naked. It was calling for a streusel topping. Let's be honest, what dessert is not enhanced by a little extra sugar and butter? So, I mixed together flour, light brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. I drizzled in the melted butter, grabbed a fork and stirred until the crumble came together. Then the whole pie was covered in a blanket of sugary crumbs. Much better.
I baked the pie for the first half hour covered with foil to prevent the streusel from burning. Then, I removed the foil and baked it for another thirty minutes. And, again, that familiar smell of pie wafted throughout the house. Is there anything better?
I have seen Brad grow from an enthusiastic 20-year-old, madly in love with my little sister, to a confident and successful businessman, husband, father and servant. I am honored to call him my brother. In a day in which a lot of people talk about doing, Brad does. All while making it look as easy as pie.
"The older I get, the more I become an apple pie, sparkling cider kind of guy." -Scott Foley

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bison and Beer(d) Pie

My husband, Will, is a man's man. He goes fly fishing for hours upon hours by himself in the middle of nowhere, has chopped down several trees and built our kitchen from the drywall up. He also grows massive amounts of facial hair, just because he can.

Will has always had scruff of some sort. When I first met him, he had a goatee, which lasted until we had children. In retrospect, I think the weight of becoming a father prompted the growing of the beard. Short and trimmed at first, although I know he cringed with every comparison to Mitchell from Modern Family.

And then the game changer - Whisker Wars. This facial hair celebrating reality competition show piqued Will's interest in beards to the extreme. Who knew men across the nation were grooming, styling and presenting their beards in hopes of earning a title? Will was in! A brief internet search revealed there would be a local beard competition at the end of March. That left six months to grow...

To be completely honest, I have always liked men with facial hair. And Will's is such a unique shade of reddish-orange. Sure, there were a few awkward phases when I contemplated cutting it all off while he slept. There was the month or so that the right side had a perpetual swoop. And the whole mustache thing creeped me out a bit at times. Not to mention finding long, wiry beard hairs in the bathroom sink every morning. But, all in all, I liked the beard.

And then there was the silent competition with Will's dad. I know that every time his father reminisced about his own beard of days gone by, saying, "I think mine was a little bit longer," it reenergized him. Nothing spurs determination in a man like a competition with his father.

A few weeks back, Will registered for the Northern California Beard and Mustache Competition, in the full beard under twelve inches category. But, as the competition date quickly approached, Will began to back pedal. Was it really long enough? Would he be laughed off the stage? Plus, I know his stomach churned at the idea that some might view this pursuit as showy. You see, Will is not typically a front and center kind of guy - he prefers being behind the scenes. He is, however, the kind of guy who dedicates himself to a plan of action and does not look back. He has embraced these past six months wholeheartedly. And for that, I am proud of him.

This might seem ironic because he was the one that came up with this crazy pie project in the first place, but Will is not a big fan of pie. He politely taste tests for me when asked, but does not put in requests or sneak into the kitchen for a sample. In fact, he is not a big dessert guy in general. What he is a big fan of lately is beer - specifically craft beer. And red meat, especially since we largely cut it out of our diet last summer. So, what to make a beer and meat loving manly man? How about Bison and Beer(d) Pie?

The most important ingredient in this savory pie was clearly the bison. So, I packed up the boys and headed over to the local meat market, which is always an education in manliness. I mean, there are several guys just standing around in bloody aprons. Kind of intimidating if you ask me.
The butcher directed me to their case of frozen game meats and proceeded to tell me that I was not going to find better or fresher bison in all of town. Well, who was I to argue? I left the market with a pound of bison and a package of applewood smoked bacon. Plus, the boys each got a lollipop, so all of the men in my life were covered.

Once home, I defrosted and then seared the bison meat on the stovetop in a bit of olive oil. Then for the produce. I peeled and diced several small red potatoes. While they were steaming, I chopped and sautéed onions, carrots and garlic until tender.
After all the individual components had been prepared, I combined everything in a large skillet with chopped tarragon, a bay leaf, the juice and zest of an orange, a generous dollop of horseradish mustard and about a third of a bottle of Guinness. The rest would be served alongside for dinner.

I sprinkled in a spoonful of flour to thicken the gravy and let the whole pan simmer uncovered for about 25 minutes.
While the filling cooled, I prepared the puff pasty crust. I admit it - I bought prepared puff pasty for my first foray into savory pie. I consider this my first official "cheat" since beginning this pie endeavor, and I am not proud. But, I was on a tight timeline - trying to complete the pie before the boys awoke from nap and Will came home from work. Plus, I was slightly daunted by a new type of crust. So, I floured the good old cutting board and rolled out the pastry to fit the pie plate. I was giddy to use my new red Le Creuset pie dish. All of my previous pies had been baked in disposable tins to be given away. But, this one was a keeper.

I placed the bottom crust in the buttered pie dish and trimmed the excess dough to about a half inch overhang. Then, I loaded in the filling. I wasn't sure it would all fit - it looked like quite a lot. But, success! I carefully placed the remaining crust on top and pinched the edges together to seal.
But how to decorate a manly pie crust? I settled on a mustache cut from the remaining scraps of dough. Pretty cute if I do say so myself. I cut a few slits for ventilation and brushed the entire pie with an egg wash. 
Into the oven for 40 minutes and out came a lovely little Bison and Beer(d) Pie.
Will was genuinely surprised by this pie! Largely because I usually harass him to go out to eat on Friday evenings. And also because I don't think he thought his name was in the pie rotation. Which is silly because when I think about the people in my life who deserve a "thank you" via pie, my husband is certainly at the top of the list.

Well, I am happy to announce that my first savory pie was an enormous success! Will devoured his first slice, went back for seconds and then just took his fork to the entire pie dish. I will take that as "yummy."
And the beard competition turned out to be a huge success as well! Undoubtably aided by the manly meal eaten the night before, Will stole third place in the Northern California Mustache and Beard Competiton's full beard under twelve inches category. A few beers, some close friends cheering him on and pure dedication brought home a victory. And a nice little trophy to boot!

"Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie eating nation can ever be vanquished." - NY Times