Sunday, August 31, 2014

County Fair Pies: Secrets of a Judge

During the summer I travel to several county fairs to judge culinary competitions. Over the past 20 years I've judged hundreds of classes, including preserved foods (no tasting, please!), baked goods, candy, and other unique classes like eggs, honey, noodles and carmel corn. I once calculated that I've tasted well over 5,000 pies alone.

I'm an advocate of open judging where competitors watch the judging live and ask questions. Most folks want to learn how improve the quality of their product. However, I also get lots of personal questions, i.e. What's the worst thing you've ever eaten?

Recently I judged the pie competition at the Stark County Fair in Canton, OH. I case you're unfamiliar with fair judging, classes are broken out by pie variety. When all classes have been judged, the first place from each class moves on to compete for Best of Show, a class that represents the best of the best. If your pie is in that class, it's a big deal.

Below are all the first place pies, along with a few tips on what I was looking for during judging. While there were more classes that what's shown, some classes did not have a first place winner.

Apple Pie

Apple pies should be full of fruit but not over spiced. Often these pies include heavy seasonings that mask fruit flavor. If you're using a combination of apple varieties, be sure to use apples that require the same cooking time. Baked crust should sit snugly against the fillings (rather than a "domed lid" after the apples cook down). A note about pie plates - while this pie was baked in a ceramic dish, the best vessel to bake a pie is a glass plate. Glass conducts heat and provides an evenly browned crust.

French Silk Pie

French Silk is a rich, light no-bake filling in a pre-baked crust. The filling, made of butter, melted chocolate and pasteurized eggs is whipped until very smooth and airy. Often the crust is slightly salty to offset the richness of the filling. It can be served with or without a whipped cream topping.

Pecan Pie

The filling of pecan pie is sweet and should be set, not runny. Although not reflected in the photos, competition pies should be topped with whole pecans, rather than pecan pieces. Check pie toward the end of baking. If nuts are overly brown, cover loosely with foil to prevent burning.

Coconut Cream Pie

This pie had a creamy, tender (but not loose) filling packed with coconut. Even better, the baker topped it with an Italian meringue to minimize weeping. I'd recommend using a spatula to pull up large peaks on the meringue, then baking longer to brown the peaks, like this.

Raisin Pie

Although it may not be common today, raisin pie was made during the winter when fresh fruit was unavailable. The filling benefits from the addition of citrus zest (orange is especially nice) and/or pecans.

Peach Pie

Peach pie filling should contain only thickener, sugar, a small amount of lemon juice and peaches. Cinnamon, nutmeg or other warm spices masks the flavor of the peaches. Fruit in this pie remained bright (unoxidized). A note on thickener: Cornstarch and flour tend to settle out of peach pies. I like Instant Clear Jel, a modified food starch  which can be found in bulk stores and online. It also works well in berry pies.

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin pies can be over spiced, minimizing the flavor of the pumpkin. All the pies in this class were split on top, which indicates over baking. As the pie cools the filling becomes tight and splits, or pulls away from the crust. Remove pie from oven when just set (filling may appear wet or slightly loose in the center). The pie will continue to bake outside the oven for a few minutes.

Cherry Pie

Since fresh cherries are largely unavailable, pies used frozen (my preference) or canned cherries. The winning pie had a nice filling: not too loose, and a deep red color. For competition, I suggest adding 1-2 drops of red food color. Cherry pies should be slightly tart. Although it didn't influence judging, this pie had a top crust that was dusted with a crumb topping.

Many pies had crusts that were too thick. A single pie crust should use no more than one cup of flour, with a fat to flour ratio of roughly 1:3. I use the crust recipe below, adding 1 Tbsp lard for flavor. (I know lard can be controversial, omit if you prefer). Double the recipe for a double crust pie.

Single Crust
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup shortening + 1 Tbsp lard
2-3 Tbsp cold water
Combine flour and salt. Cut in fat just until incorporated. You should have a mix of large and small fat pieces. Add enough water just to bring dough together. Makes one 9-inch crust.

Best of Show
Rather than comparing pies, I place BOS based on how close the pie comes to a perfect standard. I considered the apple and coconut cream pies for the top spot. Ultimately, the apple pie won. Filling was flavorful with uniformly sliced apples which enabled the filling to bake properly. It was nicely sweetened without being overly spiced and the crust was tender and flaky. 

What did you enter in your county fair? I'd love to hear your stories and questions!

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Easy Homemade Focaccia

I love the flavor imparted to bread by a long slow rise. But some days, I need bread to rise and bake fast. Focaccia comes together in about an hour and dresses up pasta, soups, salads and sandwiches. This recipe is fool proof and the leftovers make fantastic paninis. Feel free to use any herb that suits your taste.

This recipe works with fresh or dried herbs.
I snipped this rosemary from the herb bed just outside the kitchen door.

Mix dry ingredients and herb in a large bowl.

Add warm water, olive oil and egg. Combine to form a thick batter.
Cover bowl and let rest 10 minutes.

With oiled hands, spread batter in pan.  Don't worry if it doesn't reach the corners of the pan.
It will spread out as it rises. Top with olive oil, cheese, salt & pepper.
Let rise in a warn place until nearly doubled.

Bake risen dough in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes.

Cool bread and cut into squares. Serve with olive oil or balsamic vinegar for dipping, if desired. 

Adapted from Fleischmann's Yeast Best-Ever Breads 
Makes 6 generous servings

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole grain flour
2 1/4 tsp quick rise yeast (1 package)
2 Tbsp fresh rosemary or 2 tsp dried 
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup very warm water (120 - 130 degrees)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 egg

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper

In a large bowl, combine flours, yeast, rosemary and 1/2 tsp salt. Stir in warm water, 2 Tbsp olive oil and egg to make a stiff batter. Cover and lest rest 10 minutes. With lightly oiled hands, spread batter in an oiled 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Top with 1/4 cup olive oil and cheese. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, 15 to 30 minutes. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes. Let cool and cut into squares. 

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Roasted Beets

Our fall beets are just about ready to pick. We preserved our spring beets, but recently pulled a few of the late beets to roast with dinner. I added them to the golden beets I snagged when my friend, Bren, offered me a tour of her garden. If you've only had beets from a can, I encourage you to try roasting fresh beets. Crispy and sweet, roasted beets are a quick side that pairs well with a variety of meats or as the star of a meatless meal.

Bren's yellow beets were a great contrast to our red beets. Although I served these with only salt, pepper and olive oil, I often make horseradish sauce for dipping (we also pull horseradish this time of year).

Just pulled from the garden: red beets (red tops) and yellow beets (green tops). 
Remove greens and roots. Greens are edible and can be prepared
similar to other greens: braised, sauteed, etc.
Peel beets with a vegetable peeler.
Chop beets into 1-inch cubes. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper.  
If you're worried about stains on your wood cutting board, consider using a plastic board.
Beet juice stains on your hands can be removed with soap and water. Eventually.
Place beets in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. If available, use the convection
function on your oven for a crispy skin. Flip once during roasting. 
We served beets with grilled pork chops, homemade zucchini bread
and home canned peaches. I need to practice my food styling skills!

Roasted Beets
Bunch of beets (I usually do 1-2 beets per person, depending on size of the beet)
Olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Peel beets and chop beets into 1-inch cubes. Toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt & pepper. Place beets on a rimmed baking sheet and place in preheated oven. Roast for 25 minutes stirring once. Serve with horseradish sauce.

Horseradish Sauce
1/2 cup mayonaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 Tbsp grated horseradish, or to taste (be sure to use grated horseradish, rather than commercially prepared horseradish sauce)
Salt & pepper, to taste
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Serve as a dipping sauce with roasted root vegetables or as a an accompaniment to roasted meats.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

John's August 2014 Garden Update

Hello everyone, its August but sure feels like September! Here's a few updates from the garden.  

Pepper row next to some buckwheat cover crop.The buckwheat suppresses the weeds very well. As I pick things or clean rows I just hand toss seeds on surface and they sprout within a few days if it rains.

Green chiles looking good.

Eggplants coming on with small sets, late but they look good.

Tomatoes ripening fast now. Let the canning begin!

Planted some broom corn for making decorative shocks this fall.

Tomatillos starting to fill out husks.

Tongue of fire beans, we pick some fresh and leave some for dried shelling.

Cantaloupes beginning to ripen.

Butternut squash filling out.

Long Island Cheese pumpkin getting bigger every day!

Brussels sprouts sprouting, can't wait for frost! We may pick some early, but they
are sweeter after a little frost hits them.

We have a few apple trees that produce some great tasting little apples, not sure what variety.
The tree were here when we moved in.  

Blackberries struggled this year, had a few to eat fresh,
but nothing like the gallons we froze last year.  

Time for a snack after working hard. This time of year we enjoy garden sandwiches:
thick cut bologna from our local processor Delaware Meats, ripe tomatoes, peppers, and beet relish. Yum!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Freezing Berries

Besides being easy to preserve (just two steps!), summer berries taste delicious in the winter. I use frozen berries in a variety of dishes, including baked goods and pastries, sauces, smoothies and occasionally... margaritas!

When thawed, frozen berries will rend water. To avoid overly wet cakes, I use recipes where thawing isn't required. I've included one of my faves: Blueberry Buckle, a tender cake loaded with berries and topped with a lemony, cinnamon crumble.

Although we have about a dozen blueberry bushes, they're too young to produce many berries. Instead, we purchased about 10 pounds of big, sweet berries from a local grower. By volume, that's equal to about two gallons.

Freezing berries in a single layer prevents the berries from freezing in a mass, ensuring you'll be able to pull out just the amount you need. The method below can be used with most kinds of berries. We also grow and freeze strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.

Wash & dry berries and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Place tray in the freezer overnight.

When berries are frozen, remove to a ziplock freezer bag.
Place in freezer and use within one year. Easy peasy!

No need to thaw before using to make Blueberry Buckle.
Just scoop what you need from your freezer bag!
Frozen berries will hold their shape in baked goods. No more purple batter!

Buckle is perfect for dessert, breakfast or with afternoon tea.

Berry Freezing Process
Wash berries and place on a kitchen towel in a single layer. Gently pat dry. Place berries in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Place pan, uncovered, in freezer overnight. Next day, remove frozen berries to a ziplock freezer bag. Date bag, place in freezer and use within one year.

Blueberry Buckle
From King Arthur Flour

  • Crumb topping:
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
  • Cake:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen (unthawed) blueberries
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a 9" square or 9" round cake pan. If you use a round pan, make sure it's at least 2" deep.
Make the topping: Mix the sugar, flour, cinnamon, lemon zest and salt in a small bowl. Cut or rub in the butter with a fork or your finger tips until it reaches a crumbly state. Set aside.
Make the cake: Blend the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium-sized mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the sugar, butter, egg, and vanilla. Alternately add the milk and the flour mixture to the sugar/butter mixture, ending with flour. Fold in blueberries. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the topping over the batter.
Bake the cake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven, and set it on a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Yield: about 12 to 16 servings.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pickled Peppers

I love pickled peppers. The briny spiciness is a great foil to rich foods like pizza, pasta and nachos, but can also brighten vegetable salads and sandwiches. Our peppers have just started to produce and over the course of the next month we'll can most and freeze a few to toss in with sautes and chili.

Pickled peppers are easy to preserve with a short process time, raw packed and no blanching. Just place peppers in the jar, add brine and process. I chop the peppers and remove the seeds and veins. If you prefer, leave the seeds attached in whole peppers or sliced rings. Leaving the seeds and veins intact will increase the heat.

This recipe can be used with any hot pepper, or with a mix of peppers. I use this recipe to preserve banana and jalapeno peppers.

Wash, chop and remove seeds. Or if you prefer slice into rings or leave whole.
Want lots of heat? Leave the seeds and veins intact.

Place peppers into clean jars. I used gloves. That pepper juice is hot!
Using my bare hands can make contact handling tricky. For days.
The white granules are Ball's Pickle Crisp. I'm trying it for the first time.

Pour brine over peppers leaving 1/2 inch headspace.

Wipe rims, adjust lids and place in a boiling water bath.

After jars cool, remove rings, wipe down and store in a cool dry place.

Pickled Hot Peppers
Adapted from The Ball Blue Book
Click here for step-by-step water bath canning information
Makes about 5 pints

2 3/4 lbs hot peppers
6 cups vinegar
2 cups water
3 cloves garlic, crushed slightly
Ball Pickle Crisp (optional)

Leave peppers whole or cut into 1-inch pieces. If using a variety of peppers, combine peppers. Combine vinegar, water and garlic in a saucepot. Bring mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Discard garlic. Pack peppers into jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Add Pickle Crisp, if desired. Ladle hot liquid over peppers, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Adjust two-piece lids. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.

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