Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Swedish Apple Pie

This delicious twist on the apple pie is a recipe from my mother-in-law's collection. The recipe is printed on the back of an old workplace newsletter and states 'Recipe of the Week' with no other attribution, so we are claiming it as our own family keepsake. This one is too good to misplace, and well worth sharing!

The tang of the sour cream in this custard pie balances the sweetness of the apples perfectly and the streusel topping ties it all together with a punch of cinnamon that bakes up to a beautiful golden brown color. Swedish Apple Pie is best served at room temperature and needs no accoutrements in the form of additional sweet creams giving it a very elegant serving appearance.

Swedish Apple Pie

3 1/2 - 4 1/2 cups sliced tart cooking apples such as Granny Smith
2 Tablespoons flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 pinch salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream

  1. Boil the apples just until they beginning to soften. Drain well. (This step could be done in the microwave.)
  2. Preheat oven to 350-degrees Fahrenheit. 
  3. Beat eggs and vanilla together, add sour cream, and fold into apples. 
  4. Pour into pie shell and bake approximately 40 minutes or until set. 


1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup butter

While the pie is baking prepare the topping:
Combine all topping ingredients until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle evenly over pie after the first 40 minute bake and return to oven for another 15 minutes. 
Cool to room temperature to serve. 8-10 servings.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tip: Tomato Paste

Many of my recipes call for a tablespoon or less of tomato paste and in the past, had I noticed that in a recipe, I might be inclined to just leave it out since opening a 6 oz can of tomato paste for only one tablespoon seemed a real waste. Paste will mold within about a week's time in the fridge so storing the leftovers and using them before they went bad has always been problematic.  Buying the paste already in a tube is a great alternative but the cost is triple that of a can, hardly practical for the amount of cooking in this family.

Solution: Store the paste in a Ziplock bag in the freezer. Depending on how much is left in the can, use a snack or sandwich bag and press the paste to an even layer, forcing out all the air to the edges. Then use a finger to draw through the bag and divide the paste into approximately tablespoon size squares. For reference, a 6 ounce can is approximately 10 tablespoons of tomato paste (it says so on the can.) If 2 are used in the current recipe then the remainder when pressed into an even layer can be divided into 8 equal tablespoon-sized portions. Place in the freezer flat until it is frozen, then when you need paste, simply open the bag to remove an already measured portion.  

Tomato paste has a number of flavor enhancing acidic compounds and can be added to almost any savory dish without making it 'tomatoey', but instead adds richness and depth to almost any stock, gravy, or sauce no matter the ethnicity of the cuisine. With this tip you never need to be without a premeasured bit of tomato paste, providing you the opportunity to add it without hesitation to all your favorite recipes. 


Monday, February 24, 2014

Pastitsio (Pastichio) Greek Lasagna

Many years ago in a hole-in-the-wall cafe in old town Athens I had the pleasure of enjoying a near perfect meal of pastitsio and spanikopita; both recipes I have longed to recreate since. The cook there put a lot of love into their food for sure; just thinking about the lamb and okra stew my father-in-law ordered has my mouth watering (and I don't even like okra.)

The pastitsio at that little cafe had a very light but substantial béchamel topping. I am certain they whipped the egg white to get that lift, so my last few efforts have been experimenting with egg white proportions and I finally feel as though I've come close to reproducing that legendary dish. I recently served my version to a gathering of nearly 30 guests, with over half of them returning to the buffet line for seconds and all them raving about the results.

One pan will easily feed 10-12, and it is very manageable for any group since it can be made the day ahead. I used the standard disposable casserole dish (11 3/4' x 9 1/4" x 1 1/2") and filled it to nearly overflowing, but it did not spill out over the edge as it baked, making clean up for that big party a breeze. This is a recipe I will be coming back to in the future.

Greek Pastitsio

Meat Sauce: 
1/2 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
2 pounds lean ground beef/lamb or any combination
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup water
1 chicken or beef bullion cube
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
3 Tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup bread crumbs

Saute the onion in the oil until translucent, add meat and cook, breaking up chunks until no pink remains. Add all remaining sauce ingredients with the exception of the bread crumbs and allow to simmer and reduce until sauce is thick and very little liquid remains in the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in bread crumbs. Allow to cool.


1 pound pasta, ziti, bucatini, or penne
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup butter, cut into 1/2 tablespoons slices
1 1/2 cup (6 oz) Swiss or Kasseri cheese, shredded

While the meat sauce cooks, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the noodles according to the package directions to al dente, or firm to the bite. Pour noodles into a colander to drain and run under cold water to cool. Use the residual heat from the pan the noodles cooked in to melt the butter. Once the butter is melted, return the cool noodles to the pan and toss to coat. Combine the remaining ingredients and toss to coat the noodles evenly.
Place approximately two-thirds of the noodles in the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 casserole, cover with the meat sauce, making an even layer. Use the remaining noodles to top the meat sauce and proceed to making the béchamel topping.  
The top layer of béchamel will have slightly more lift if made the same day as baking, but the casserole can easily be made the day ahead, refrigerated overnight, and baked the next day with very little appreciable difference in the lightness of the cream top. Note baking times will be approximately 20 minutes longer when baked directly from the cold refrigerator.

Béchamel sauce:

4 cups milk, heated
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup salted butter
1/4 - 1/2 tsp nutmeg, fresh ground
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup Parmesan or Kefalotyri, grated
4 eggs, separated

1/2 cup Parmesan or Kefalotyri, finely grated for topping

Heat milk on the stove or in the microwave to warm (warm milk reduces lump formation in sauce.) Melt butter and stir in flour, allow to cook over medium heat 2-3 minutes. Slowly pour in the warm milk and whisk constantly until the mixture is evenly smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool 5 minutes.

While the sauce cools, beat the eggs whites to soft peaks. Add nutmeg, pepper and 1/2 cup cheese, whisk to combine. Remove 1/2 cup of the warm béchamel and whisk it into the egg yolks to temper them, then add the yolk mixture to the sauce, whisking to combine. Repeat with the beaten egg whites to temper them and then folding them into the sauce. Salt to taste.
Pour the béchamel sauce over the top layer of noodles and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese over all. Pastitsio can be covered and refrigerated overnight to bake the next day or placed directly into a 350-degree oven on the middle rack for approximately 50 minutes. The top should be golden brown. Allow to cool 15 minutes before slicing and serving for the best presentation. 

TIP: To test if a dish is heated through to the middle, carefully poke a fork through the top layers and let it set in the middle of the dish for about 1/2 a minute. Feeling the fork will indicate if the middle is sufficiently hot or not. If the top browns too quickly before the middle cooks through, tent the top with aluminum foil. 


Friday, February 7, 2014

Baconology: 10, 5, Flip, Finish Method

I have cooked a lot of bacon over the last few months. I jokingly coined my efforts 'Baconology' and have documented notes and weights on at least 25 lbs of bacon cooked by various methods. This was hardly a deep-dive scientifically speaking, but the measured observances and extensive taste tests led to a number of rather interesting discoveries.

My intention was to come up with a cooking method that would consistently yield great bacon. After I met that criteria I worked to make it as effortless as possible, which included reducing cleanup and cook times. The results are the '10, 5, Flip, Finish', and as recorded in the video, prove that not only does it work for one pound of bacon, but it works just the same for two.

Watch the video to learn more: 

Breakdown: 10, 5, Flip, Finish 

Place bacon straight out of the package fat side down in a cold nonstick pan. Place on burner over MEDIUM heat.

Set the timer for 10 minutes, don't touch it.

At 10 minutes, separate the rashers to fill the pan.
Cook another 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, FLIP it all over.

Push the least cooked rashers to the sides and use the middle of the pan to FINISH.

If the pan spits grease, turn the heat down.
If they cook too quickly, turn the heat down.

Remove from pan as they turn golden and allow to drain on paper towels.

Don't allow the bacon to steam, move it to a plate while still warm.
It will continue to crisp up as it cools.

The concept here is that the fat takes longer to cook than the meat. Cooking it fat side down protects the more tender meat proteins and allows the fat to render, creating a more tender and delicious rasher. Admittedly the process takes a bit of time, but the first 15 minutes are nearly hands off, and the benefit of those last 10 minutes of extra attention means fewer grease splatters and greatly reduced mishaps of burnt bacon.
I should also note that I tested all kinds of pans, stainless steal, cast iron, and nonstick. Each of them performed well, but I settled on the nonstick pan for the ease of clean up. It is certainly not essential to have a nonstick pan to make great bacon, it is just my pan of choice.

Other Bacon Geek Discoveries:  

Baked vs Fried
As mentioned in the video, I measured the weights of grease and meat with the expectation that baked bacon would weigh less in meat and more in grease than that of fried, since I believed the myth that baked bacon is lower in fat (thinking more grease would render out.) However four different methods, two on the oven and two on the stove, using exactly the same raw meat weight revealed the post-cooked weights of all four methods also was exactly the same. Which leads to the assumption that baking only removes flavor/moisture, not fat (since it did not taste nearly as good.)
Great Bacon has a High Fat to Meat Ratio 
The bacon from the video.
Weighing bacon this way revealed a pattern in the relationship of great taste to rendered grease.  The bacon with the most flavor nearly always rendered out the same weight in grease as in meat. This meant in almost every instance that the national brands did not even compare to the lower cost/generic or regional brands. When purchasing bacon in the past I always picked through the selection looking for the 'meatiest' looking package. Measurements and tastes tests confirm that is completely unnecessary and even undesirable.
 Meat Weight
Strained bacon grease.
I weighed dozens of pounds, uncooked, cooked, along with the grease left in the pan. Not all bacon is a full pound out of the package, despite what it says on the wrapper. I found many that came in a full ounce short. This is actually more appalling when you learn that those 15 ounces cook down to less than 4 ounces of edible meat. If you consider the cost per pound equates to only a quarter of that amount in cooked product; that makes bacon a very expensive cut of meat. The cost alone should be reason enough to get serious about a cooking method. 
Additional Bits of Bacon
Home-cured and smoked bacon is darker in color,
but has no off-putting flavor unlike commercial bacon
when allowed to get this browned.
Bacon grease, like any other fat introduced in your diet should be consumed sparingly, but is does enhance almost any dish. Rubbed on the outsides of baked potatoes, sauteed with onions and garlic for tomato sauces, omelets, hash browns, and every sort of green veggie benefit from frying in bacon grease. The fat content is not any higher in bacon grease than other fats, but it does contain sodium, so keep that in mind when adding salt. Allow the grease to cool a bit, then strain any cooked meat bits out and store it in the fridge in a lidded glass container.
Bacon's cost, its unequivocal flavor, and its potential health implications make it all the more important that when you do indulge, you make the most of the little bit of meat you get from your efforts. I hope you find as much success with this method as I have.

Oh and for you vegan fans, I haven't left you out. You can find my version of tofu 'bacon' here

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Whipped Cream Cake

Whipped Cream Cake takes an entire quart of heavy cream to make and is absolutely decadent with whipped cream flavor; no other cake I have ever had even compares. Italian cream cake recipes may come close, but they tend to have a buttery mouth feel, whereas this cake is light like sweet cream.  The inherent problem with whipped cream as a frosting is also solved by using a stabilizer in the form of instant pudding mix, which gives the cream enough structure that it will hold up in the fridge for days (if it lasts that long.) Using the white chocolate version of the mix adds the lightest possible flavor, so the sweet cream takes center stage and every bite tastes gourmet but the effort is far from it. In fact, I recently made this cake in a vacation rental with only a blender to whip the cream and disposable aluminium pans for baking. It may have been a little short on lift from usual but it was still a huge success with all our guests. 

The only trick to this cake is the bake time. There is no butter or oil in the recipe, so the heavy cream acts as the fat. As a result it can dry out very easily if it is over-baked. I have experimented with adding oil, beating the cream nearly to butter, beating it less, or not at all, but just watching the bake time turns out to be the best solution to maximize the cream's flavor and maintain a light crumb. Watch the cake as it begins to take on color. As soon as the top feels firm and has just a hint of golden brown it is probably done. If you wait until the sides pull away with this cake, it may already have dried out. Don't let that scare you off from trying it though, this cake is worth every bit of the extra attention needed, which will be confirmed the second you taste the scrumptious batter. If you can resist licking the bowl, you have far more will power than I!

Whipped Cream Cake

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
3 eggs 
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups cake flour (2 cups all purpose)
Heat oven to 350-degrees. Line two 9-inch rounds with parchment, first spraying each with cooking spray. Measure out the flour, salt, and baking soda on to a piece of waxed paper, blend gently with a fork to break up any clumped bits of flour.

To save on washing bowls, beat all the whipped cream first. Making sure all bowls, beaters, and cream is very cold, start with the whipped cream measured for the frosting and filling below, beat it to medium firm peaks with the sugar and set it in a bowl in the refrigerator for later. Then beat the whipping cream for the cake to very firm peaks (as shown in the picture below.) Mound the whipped cream on to a plate or shallow bowl and proceed to use the mixing bowl to mix the rest of the cake ingredients. 

Blend the eggs, vanilla, and sugar until lemon colored and thickened. On top of the egg mixture add the flour and whipped cream and fold until combined. The batter should be uniformly mixed. 

The batter is thick, so divide it equally between the pans and spread it to make an even layer.

In my oven it bakes for 20-22 minutes but it should be checked before then. Do not let the cake overbake. The most accurate method I have found for testing it is the finger touch. It should bounce back when touched, it may have an uneven golden hue, that is perfectly acceptable. Allow to cool in pan 10 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely before frosting/filling.

Whipped Cream Cake Filling and Frosting

2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup white sugar
2 3.3 oz White Chocolate Jello instant pudding mix
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk the pudding mix and vanilla into the milk in a large bowl and add the cream whipped earlier to combine. Divide the frosting into three equal portions and put one on each of the cakes. Spread the cream nearly to the sides and place one cake on top of the other. Use the final third of cream to frost the sides. You will the find the whipped cream has far more body and is easier to work with than most other frosting and will allow deep, creamy swirls to be formed on the top and sides. 

The cake is neither too sweet, too light in body, or too heavy. Don't be alarmed by the amount of frosting, one taste will tell you that it is going to be divine on the cake, be sure to use it all.  Whipped cream cake easily feeds 16, but there are sure to be some guests who want seconds. Enjoy!