RECIPE: The Creamiest Pumpkin Pie Ever with Ginger-Pecan Crumb layer

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I am a little late getting this posted, and pumpkin pie may not be on the docket for you until next year. However, while the recipe and process is still fresh in my head, I wanted to share this recipe. I adapted it from the pie goddess herself, Rose Beranbaum, author of The Pie and Pastry Bible. This book is a great wedding gift to brides who want to become amazing pie makers. I have learned much from her techniques. Sometimes, she goes a little overboard on steps, but there is a lot of science in her baking-as baking truly is a science in many ways. She spent a lot of time baking pies in various approaches to get the perfect recipe for any pie you can dream of. Its a bible for sure, with a thickness to warrant it's title.

This recipe does something very interesting with the pumpkin that I urge you not to skip. After cooking the pumpkin mixture on the stove, you puree it until extra smooth in a food processor while adding the rest of the ingredients. Cooking it stove top decreases the water content and melds the spices, and pureeing it creates a silky, creamy consistency that is to die for.

Pay close attention to the end of the cooking time. A knife pulled out should come out clean, but the pie should have an ever so slight jiggle to it. If it doesn't and begins cracking at the center, you have cooked it too long. The pie needs to cook slow and long, so the crust should not overhang too far on the pie plate. The crust will not be able to stand up to the long cooking time, so keep it a shorter and tighter crust, closer to the filling. Cover with foil if things get away from you. Finally, I used "Anna's" Ginger Thins because I had a hard time finding Ginger cookies. Ginger snaps or thins works for the crumb. If using thicker ginger snaps, maybe cut the cookie amount by half. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

The Creamiest Pumpkin Pie Ever with Ginger-Pecan Crumb layer

Ingredients

Dough
8 Tbsp. salted cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/3 cups plus 4 Tbsp. all -purpose flour (or pastry flour which will make it flakier)
1/8 tsp. baking powder
2 1/2-3 1/2 Tbsp. ice water
1 1/2 tsp. cider vinegar


Crumb layer
8 Ginger thins, such as Anna's
1/3 cup pecan halves

Pumpkin filling
15 oz. can unsweetened pumpkin puree
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract


For the dough...
You're going to divide the butter into two parts. Basically, chill in the fridge 5 Tbsp. in plastic wrap, and freeze until solid the remaining 3 Tbsp. wrapped in plastic wrap. This takes around 30 minutes. If possible, even chill your flour in a Ziploc bag for the same amount of time. I sometimes skip this if I am feeling less patient, and things still turn out alright. But the idea here is the cooler things are, the more the butter "nubs" stay in tact versus melting too early. As they melt while baking, they leave pockets in the crust, thus creating the sought after "flakiness".

In a food processor, pulse the flour and baking powder. Then add the chilled butter and pulse until the butter resembles the size of large peas. Add the frozen butter and pulse until the butter resembles small peas. I use fork tines to lift some of the flour up and see what size the butter bits are every few pulses. Add the vinegar and the first couple tablespoons of chilled water and pulse. The mixture will be crumbly. Press it with your fingers, does it feel like with pressure it will come together? If not, add another Tbsp. of water and pulse a little more. Add water a Tbsp. at a time and pulse until the mixture comes together with your fingers pressing it. Dump the mixture on a large saran wrap covered surface. Using the side of the wrap, push the wrap over the edges of the pile and begin pushing and pressing the dough together using the saran wrap under your hands. Eventually, have the saran wrap cover the dough, and using your hands, push it flat and then shape the dough into a flat, round shape. Work fast, you don't want the butter to melt. Once the dough is a nice shaped flat disc wrapped in saran wrap, place it in the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes.



When ready, take the dough out and let sit for ten minutes on more plastic wrap lightly dusted with flour on a work surface until the dough can be rolled out. Cover the dough with more floured plastic wrap and roll into a circle large enough to fill your 9 inch baking pan. Flip the dough onto your dish, peel the bottom wrap off and gently push the dough into your pan. Trim your edge so that it does not overhang the pan. Use the tines of a fork and press around the edge to create a decorative border, because you don't have a decent overhang to make it pretty. Cover and chill again for an hour. You will have a small amount of extra dough. Roll that out as well, and make decorative leaf shapes for the top. You will cook these separately.

Place a foil-covered baking sheet at the bottom rack of the oven, or even the oven floor. Preheat oven to 375˚ for 20 minutes before baking-so I usually get it going while I prep the crumb layer and the filling.

I then get the crumb layer started...


Place the ginger cookies and the pecans in a food processor. Pulse until finely ground. Set aside until the crust has been adequately chilled. When the crust is ready, fill the bottom with the crumb layer, and with your hand and the back of a spoon, layer it evenly along the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides, pressing it gently into the dough. Set aside.

And finally, the filling...


In a saucepan, stir together pumpkin puree, brown sugar, spices and salt over medium heat. Bring it to a simmer, then reduce to low and stir until thick and shiny-about 5 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a food processor and puree for 1 minute. While on, add the milk and cream until combined. Stop and scrape the sides, then continue while adding the eggs, one at a time, processing 5 seconds after each addition. Add the vanilla with the last egg. 



Pour the filling into the waiting pie shell. Set it on the waiting, heated baking sheet, and bake for 60-80 minutes or until a knife inserted between the sides and center come out just about clean. There also will be a jelly-like jiggle in the center of the filling just before it is done. It will have puffed up and the surface will have dulled. If it does not have the "jello jiggle" in the middle, you can be sure it is not near done. The jelly jiggle is like an alert that it is almost done. So keep an eye on it and test it with a knife shortly after the jiggle test. 


Also, don't forget your leaf decorations you made with the extra dough. Bake the decorations on a separate baking sheet on the middle rack until lightly golden. Let cool completely.


When the pie is done, place on a rack to cool and set completely. After ten minutes of cooling add your cooked pastry decorations you baked separately on the top. They will settle in and stick, and look as if they belonged there all along!


Lifestyle: Sometimes when it comes to health, its the simple solutions that help.

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Time and again I am forced to deal with our health care system. Unfortunately, it is because I have a chronic stomach condition which gives me lots of fun physical issues from time to time. Add my high stress job, and there are times when I feel like my body is falling apart! However, I find I need to hunt down the right doctors, and meet with a few of them, before landing on the right fit for me. To help that process, I also do a lot of my own research on doctors, medication and ailments. It helps me get a clear understanding of what may be suggested and how it will affect my life. I can ask the right questions and also say no to things that I know won't work for my lifestyle.

In this whole journey, I have discovered one thing. Sometimes, when something is wrong, it doesn't always have to be answered with massive medications. For instance, recently,  I was having issues with very dry scalp. It was getting very bad, where I was going to go to the dermatologist. There were pieces of my scalp that actually began bleeding (YUCK AND HOLY COW!), and it was scaring me. At the time, I had to get some blood work done with a new GI was seeing, and she discovered I was very low on Vitamin D. She put me on a very large dose for three months. Amazingly, within a week, my scalp became greatly improved. Within three months, my scalp was normal. I did not need to go see a dermatologist, and I also felt better, less stressed. I talked to a few friends who were having some skin problems and after some research, they also went on Vitamin D with fish oil. This was after seeing countless doctors recommending hundred of dollars of medications. They all had improvements in their skin, to the point where they did not need to go on topical steroids. It is amazing what a simple blood test can do to help with some physical issues, especially when you can trace it back to vitamin deficiencies. My frustration is that doctors don't always think that way first, and I wonder if it is financially driven? Vitamins and preventative medicine tend to be cheaper then medications, which does cut into profits. If it is one thing the health care debate brought to light is that our system does not financially reward getting people well and healthy, that they actually make more on you if you stay sick. It is a little bit backward. But I have said before and I will say it again, its your money and your life. You dictate what you want and need, and what is going to work for you. If you want to start with a blood test and see what deficiencies you have, ask for it. Don't get pressured out of things. You have to pay for it anyway! Have the system work for you. 

Recently, I had to push the doctor to pull a cholesterol test after a scary incident where I thought I had a heart episode. I rushed to the doctor to get an EKG and blood pressure checked. When they took blood, I asked if they would be checking cholesterol, and the response was "It would be out if context (really?)" AND "This is technically not a physical". Read between the lines, and it is a "The Insurance Company won't cover it." Well, guess what?- they barely cover anything anyway, and if I am paying for it, I want it. Period. SO if you get push back for simple tests, you push right back. It is in your best interest.
And do not discount stress as an addition to your health issues. My one favorite doctor who blends western medicine with an open mind to holistic and natural approaches, told me that 80% of all health issue are related in some way to stress. She told me that doctors don't really talk about it that much or address it with patients. As I mentioned before, I recently thought I had a heart attack. After the battle over the cholesterol test, this acerbic doctor told me she thought I had a panic attack. She said after the blood tests, we will know more, but that is what she thought the issue was. Then she began to ramble off therapy and drugs to help with my stress and anxiety. How about some YOGA, some B Vitamins to start, and some meditation or cutting out caffeine? Its funny she went right to the most expensive approaches without going with some simpler ones. SO again, it is up to me to do some research and figure out what will work best for me and my life. That is important to remember. At the end of the day, doctors are just guides, but you need to let them know where you want to go, and what speed you want to take and what car you want to drive. I say, slow and steady wins the race, and I am definitely in an economy class car!


RECIPE: Double Chocolate Cake with Whipped Vanilla Frosting

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This cake is a sure hit every time I make it for adults and kids alike. The coffee in the batter kicks up the deep chocolate flavor, and this frosting recipe gets it's creaminess from a milk custard you make on the stove, than cool before adding. This is the best vanilla frosting I have ever made, and it seems pretty versatile for other cupcakes and tortes.

A couple of notes regarding this cake, if you don't feel like brewing a "whole pot of Jo" for the 1 1/4 cups you need, use instant VIA from Starbucks, and use a packet and a half in 1 1/4 cups hot water. It works like a charm. Also, I urge you to make peace using full fat sour cream for the batter. It just works better. You can, however, cut back to lower fat milk in the frosting. It still works fine and thickens as expected. The result is a little less creamy flavor but most people don't even notice. And finally, do use parchment paper in your pans. I have used PAM with flour coating and still the cakes were hard to release once cooled. With parchment paper, you can skip the flour, getting cleaner sides to the cake which looks better, and they pop right out without cracking or breaking. Don't skimp on this step, or you will get a mess. Sadly, I speak from experience!

Double Chocolate Cake with Whipped Vanilla Frosting

Cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cups prepared coffee (see note above)
4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (use squares or morsels)
1/4 cup baking cocoa
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 eggs at room temp
1/2 cup full fat sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla


Whipped Vanilla Frosting:
1 cup milk (full fat or low fat)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup butter, softened
2 well rounded teaspoons vanilla

Heat oven to 350˚. Spray 3 8.5 x 1.5 inch cake pans with non-stick spray. Cut three circles out of parchment paper using the base of one pan as a template and place at the bottom of each pan. Spray lightly again. Set aside.

Mix flour, baking soda and salt together in a bowl with a fork, set aside.

In a small saucepan heat coffee over medium heat. Add the solid chocolate and melt until smooth. Add the cocoa and mix until smooth, and remove from heat. Cool to room temp.

Beat butter until creamy, then add both sugars and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating at high speed after each. Now you are going to alternate between your flour mixture and your sour cream, beating after each addition until smooth. Don't over beat it, however. Stir in the chocolate mixture and vanilla until combined. Pour evenly into each pan.

Bake on the center rack for 20-25 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes on a rack. while still slightly warm, remove cake from pans onto racks to cool completely.


Now onto the frosting.

In a small saucepan over medium low heat, whisk flour with the milk. Whisk constantly, moving to a spoon midway until mixture becomes very thick. Take off heat and cool completely. It may be a good idea to get this done earlier so it has time to sit and cool. If this mixture is warm in any way, the frosting will not come together, but separate and get congealed and well...weird.


With a mixer, whip the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Gradually add the milk mixture a few Tablespoons at a time until all combined. Add the vanilla and give it a minute more. It should look like a fluffy buttercream, and quite spreadable.








Place your first cake on a cake plate, and spread 1/3 of the frosting. Gently place your second cake on it and spread another third of the frosting on it. Place the final cake on it, and spread the last of the frosting on top. Add some sprinkles on top or shaved chocolate for decoration. Store covered in the fridge. Take out 30 minutes before serving to soften the frosting a little for better enjoyment.

CRAFT: 2 for 1 Holiday Centerpieces

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Lets face it, we Divas want to be Martha Stewart in theory. But really, who has time or money to do some of the ornate and over-the-top craft projects she often shares? The difference with urban domestic divas is that we are creative but thriftier and more realistic. So it's the holidays and you want to make a creative centerpieces for both Thanksgiving and Christmas but don't want to spend a lot, nor do you have a lot of storage space either. Here is a approach that you can get double use out of one main purchase, and actually eat the decorative elements when they have served their purpose! SO multiple uses-that's what I call thrifty!

The main centerpiece elements can be found in a craft store or a resale store. I found the various sized candle holders and candles at our local thrift store, and I scored the tray in the clearance section of our local craft store-as well as the greenery. It doesn't matter what is decorating the tray on top, because in both instances, you are covering it with other stuff.

Thanksgiving:
Get a variety of heights in glass candle holders, and find candles that are slightly smaller than the glass so there is room to put things around the candle in the glass. You can get neutral colored candles to get more use, or get fall colors to tie it all together.  Layer greenery such as Eucalyptus or a combination of fall leaves and pussy willows on a small decorative serving tray. Arrange the glass with candles on top. You may need to readjust your layer of greenery so that it nestles the bases of the glass. In each glass, fill the insides around the candle with various whole nuts. Chestnuts, almonds and hazelnuts are very nice and are the right size. It is OK to light these for your dinner party, the wax just pools around the nuts and it is alright. Just keep an eye on things. After use, I was able to pull out the "unwaxy" nuts, roast them and eat them throughout the month!

Christmas:
Now with your same base elements, arrange as you wish. To cover your tray and glass bases, use decorative snow, ornaments or holly. I used snow in this instance. I changes the candles to be more festive. In the glass around the candles, I purchased bulk starbright mints at Walmart, and filled each glass with either green or red ones. I did not take the wrappers off of them, but if you are going to light the centerpiece, I would take the wrappers off. The plastic will melt and possible catch fire, versus just the candies which will just melt slightly. Again, if you keep the wrappers on, the mints can be eaten in a candy dish after they have served their decorative purpose.

I would imagine you can create a nice centerpiece with whole cranberries in the same manner, other holiday candy or whole spices. Be creative. The glass is a great vessel for anything, just be very careful when lighting the candles that you don't have anything highly flammable next to the flame. Or just don't light it.

Happy Holiday Crafting!

RECIPE: Delicious Brining Solution for your Roast Turkey

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This brining solution I like because it has more flavor than salt. I have found with heavy salt brining approaches, if you don't rinse your turkey well enough, it will be slightly salty. This recipe counts on vegetable and chicken broths to add a lot of the salt and flavor. I used food grade brining bags, and had 2 18 lb. turkeys, in each bag. I divided the solution evenly amongst the two, and flipped the turkeys after 8 hours so each side gets brined evenly. I have heard people using plastic buckets or even garbage bags to brine turkeys. I would caution you to make sure whatever you brine your turkey in that it is food grade. Plastic chemicals can leach into your food and you don't want that-for the health of you and your guests. Also, the turkey still needs to be kept refrigerated while brining, so make sure whatever you use will fit in your fridge-or if it is cold enough, you could keep it outside or in a cold garage. The roasting recipe is on my sister site if you want it. It is a delicious recipe, and this year, we had the turkey on convection first (breast side down) which gave the turkey a rich caramel color and seared it, than lowered it to 325˚ at "regular baking" after a couple hours of convection to slow roast. It worked out well. Also, keep in mind brining a turkey speeds up cooking time by about 20-30 minutes. Be sure to calculate that when you are timing things! Also, when cooking two turkeys together, calculate what it would take for one turkey, then add 50% more time to it. The mass of that much food in the oven slows down the cooking time, but not quite by double. That seems to work for us.


Flora's Brining Solution
good for 2  18 lb turkeys (for one, cut in half)

Ingredients

2 gallons of mixed chicken and vegetable broth
1 1/2 rounded cups sea salt
1 Tbsp. whole multicolored peppercorns
3-4 large branches fresh sage, leaves only, ripped up in torn pieces
2 Tbsp. dried Thyme
1 rounded Tbsp. dried Rosemary
2 gallons ice water

2 brining bags
Two rinsed, defrosted 18 lb turkeys with organ bag removed and patted dry

Directions:


In a very large stock pot, boil all the ingredients minus the water. Lower to simmer, and cook until salt is well dissolved. Take off the flame and let sit until cools to room temp. Divide evenly between both turkeys in each bag, add 1 gallon of ice water to each bag. Seal shut. Let sit in the refrigerator for 8 hours. Flip turkeys and let sit for another 5-8 hours. When ready, discard bags and broth and rinse turkeys well, pat dry. Dress and truss as you wish.

Recipe: Slow Cooker Sausage Bread Stuffing

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Your oven is full of a ham or turkey for the holidays, and you still need to get sides on the table, like stuffing for instance. Well, stress out no more. Stuffing in the slow cooker is a great option. The slow cooker keeps things moist and cooking with little effort from you...after all, you have other things to worry about, right? Best of all, it doesn't need your already crowded oven. Fluff the stuffing before serving with a fork. Try not to over stir it as it cooks, or you will break up the bread to the point of mush. We use the turkey organs and neck as a base for the stuffing flavor, but you don't have to. You can just start the recipe at browning the sausage if you wish. You can also make this recipe vegetarian by skipping all the meat and just using vegetable broth instead. You need a very large bowl for mixing this puppy, and have no fear of fitting all the bread into your slow cooker. Once the liquid is added, the bread shrinks down, and you can press everything into the cooker. I almost did not believe it myself, but it did!

Slow Cooker Sausage Bread Stuffing

Ingredients:
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Reserved turkey giblets, organs and neck (washed and patted dry)
1 lb. mild breakfast sausage roll
1 stick butter
2 medium chopped onions
2 cups chopped celery
1 lb. fresh sliced mushrooms
12 1/2 cups white bread (about 2 lbs.), chopped into 1 inch cubes and dried out or stale*
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped
1 tsp. crumpled dried thyme
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
3 cups chicken broth
2 large eggs, slightly beaten


Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Chop up the Turkey liver into bite sized pieces, but keep the other organ meat whole so you can easily pull it out. Add the neck, liver and organ meat to the pan and cook until brown. Discard all from the pan except for the liver (if you wish).** Add the sausage to the liver and brown, breaking the sausage up with the back of your spoon. When done, empty into a very large bowl. Add the bread cubes into the bowl and toss, set aside. In the same skillet, add the butter and melt over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and mushrooms. Cook until soft, about 15 minutes. Add to the bread mixture and toss. Add all the seasoning, and toss again. In a mixing cup add the broth and the egg, and whisk lightly with a fork. Add to the bread mixture slowly, tossing as you go. The mixture will begin to shrink down. Liberally coat the crock pot with butter. 



Pack the slow cooker with the stuffing, gently pressing it in to fit. Cover. Cook on "high" for 1 hour. Lower to "low", cook until puffy and brown around the edges. Toss with a fork once in awhile so things don't get soggy on the bottom, but do not over mix. Cook on low for 5-6 hours. Fluff with a fork again before serving. Can stay on "warm" up to 2-3 hours with the cover cracked open if it gets done before your turkey. Serve warm.


* I dry out the  bread in a 300˚ oven for 20 minutes or so, tossing the cubes around so they dry out evenly.
** If you are roasting a turkey, feel free to add the removed  neck and organs to the bottom of your roasting pan. They add excellent flavor for gravy, and you may have guests like my mother who just want the neck for dinner, period. I know...Italians.
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