Monday, October 26, 2015

Lancashire Cheese-and-Onion Pie

When I was growing up, the closest I came to a savory pie was the cheap little frozen pot pies that my mother picked up for about a quarter when they were on sale. That was a very different little beast from the sorts of pasty and pie offerings that are common in England or Australia. Pot pies are filled with frozen vegetables and thickened goop. My limited information about more advanced savory pie cuisine lead me to believe that the filling was more substantial and the flavors more developed.

My knowledge of such things is largely confined to what I learned from documentaries. In fact, the largest source of my savory pie education comes from a documentary on Victorian farm life. As part of the recreation, one of the gentlemen manning the farm constructed a pastry case and filled it with meat and spices. The historians role playing as Victorians stated that the pastry at that time was not meant to be eaten, but merely served as a way in which to cook the filling.

I imagine that pastry was not wasted in a similar fashion at all times or in all cases in British cuisine and I hoped that the recipe that I found on the Lancashire Cheese-and-Onion Pie was going to produce an edible pastry. That being said, I did note that the recipe was different from conventional pie crust. The fat to flour ratio was lower, which would likely result in a harder, tougher crust.

I followed the recipe as described on the New York Times page, except that I had no choice but to use more ice water and I used black pepper instead of white. In fact, given the amount of flour, I'd be stunned if anyone could make it work with only three tablespoons. Even with five, my pastry was cracking and separating all over the place and it was a struggle to get each piece to roll out large enough to create a top and bottom that could come together. My final result looked a bit rough because of this problem:

Despite the difficulty with the crust, the pie turned out very well. Since I opted to use cheddar cheese, it was pretty salty and I wished I'd added less salt to the onions while cooking them. That being said, I didn't use a lot and it was still very tasty. It was immensely savory and flavorful and the onions cooked down to being quite sweet and mellow.

My main worry was this was that the sparse seasoning would result in something which was lacking in flavor depth. I desperately wanted to throw some garlic into the onions, but resisted the urge in favor of something which I suspected was more authentic. Though garlic was brought to England by the Romans, it wasn't widely used in British cuisine. It turned out that the onions and cheese were more than enough complexity to provide a homey, but interesting side dish. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Microwave Saffron Turkish Delight

One of my friends went to Istanbul earlier this year and brought me back a box of varied sweets. Each cube was a firm jelly either lightly dusted with a white powder or studded with nuts. They were dark in color for the most part, favoring deep reds and greens, and quite tasty. My favorite was the one that tasted like cherry, though I enjoyed them all. There was a cloudy white one that seemed to be coconut as well as a few that were obviously pistachio and walnut; the nuts peppering the edges were a dead giveaway. There were also some that were difficult to reach conclusions about the flavors as they clearly were not common in America, but I can say that I'm certain not one of those delights were saffron-flavored.

Saffron isn't a flavor one usually associates with sweets and my main experience with it is sparingly using those expensive threads with paella that I make for my husband. I have a tiny bottle at present that was given to me as a souvenir of his father's and sister's visit to relatives in Spain a few years ago. When it runs out, I know I'll have to reluctantly pay more per ounce for this spice than I'd pay for gold.

Because of the high price of saffron, and the intensity of the flavor, I was stunned that the New York Times recipe for microwave saffron Turkish delight included a teaspoon of it. That seemed like an enormous quantity by any standard, but then I guess the Times food editors and writers make more money than my family does. As I scanned the recipe, I decided to reduce the amount of saffron and increase the amount of lemon to suit my tastes. I also substituted vanilla extract for vanilla bean because I didn't have any on hand and they are also very expensive. This was a substitution I regretted, and that I'm pretty sure lowered the quality of flavor of the final outcome, but I was already investing enough by using my precious saffron and I didn't want to splash out for a vanilla bean on a recipe that may flop. I've tried to make candy very few times in my life and have rarely experienced success.

You can follow the link above to the Times version of the recipe with instructions (which I followed as they appear), but my ingredients list was as follows:

  • 1 1/4 cups cornstarch (plus more as needed for dusting)
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/3 teaspoons saffron threads
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar

Though this is a microwave recipe, it is still labor intensive. The use of a microwave over a conventional stove-top cooking method is likely meant to reduce the chances that the candy will burn, not speed up the process. You need to stop at frequent intervals and stir. I used a glass bowl much bigger than required and a silicon spatula. Heed the warning on the instructions to handle the bowl with oven mitts as it will get hot over the long cooking process. The larger bowl makes stirring the thick molten liquid much less dangerous.

Since I rarely make candy and all of my previous attempts were pretty disastrous, I erred on the side of over-cooking rather than under-cooking. I followed the instruction to smear a bit of the mixture on the side of a cold plate, but I found that that it never quite solidified into a soft solid as I expected. I know the plate was cold enough because I kept it in the freezer between tests. After cooking for one more cycle than the maximum amount of time (24 minutes), I concluded that I'd better stop.

When I spread the gel-like mixture into my well-greased pan, it started to solidify pretty rapidly and became impossible to spread evenly. I ended up with an uneven topography of yellow goo. After cooling and freezing, cutting was an adventure as it was extremely tough to get the semi-frozen mixture to pull apart. I was very concerned that the candy was going to end up like ancient gummy bears texture-wise and would pull out my fillings when chewing.

The picture on the New York Times page for the recipe shows bright yellow candy with brilliant threads of red saffron topped by a snowy white dusting. Mine looked like this:

The instructions tell you to store the candy in a a shallow container filled with a mixture of half powdered sugar and half cornstarch. This is the wise way to store them and leaves you with the snowy-looking specimens above. They are not photogenic, but they also aren't sticky. If you attempt to package or display your candy as the Times photo does, it'll stick terribly to the sides of the plastic bag that you artfully place it into.

While the reality isn't pretty, it is extremely tasty. The textural issues that were concerning me did not come to fruition. After the candy had warmed to room temperature, it turned into a pliable, but manageable jelly candy. The texture is, for lack of a better word, delightful. The flavor, despite my reducing the saffron, had plenty of that spice present. If anything, I'd recommend reducing the saffron down to an even smaller amount (1/4 teaspoon, perhaps) and keeping the increased lemon juice amount. The lemon flavor isn't particularly potent and I think that it keeps the candy from being too sweet. The flavors definitely come together to produce something akin to honey without the cloying sweetness or stickiness.

This is a fantastic candy recipe and I would definitely make it again. I'd consider also changing it up with other flavors (such as orange or even anise). However, I wouldn't make it often because it's an enormous amount of work. I think it'd make an excellent holiday recipe or as a special treat for someone who loves jelly candies or Turkish delight. 

About this blog

I'm a 51-year-old American woman and at the age when my parents were firmly set in their ways when it came to food. To this day, they have zero flexibility when it comes to how food is cooked and spiced. My mother enjoys plain canned tomatoes on white bread. My father feels that anything that includes garlic is disgusting. Both of them believe any piece of meat with a hint of juice is dangerously under-cooked. My childhood meals was largely made up of cheap cuts of meat cooked to the consistency of shoe leather.

I've found that many people tend to have tastes set in stone. This is why no small number of American restaurants are very conservative in their menu choices. I recall a "Cathy" comic some time ago which illustrated this well. The eponymous character and her parents had gone to a restaurant and are perusing the menu and discussing their choices. In the end, they all settle on chicken, salad with ranch dressing, and potatoes. Their waitress summarizes these choices for the kitchen in a few words as it is so frequently the menu that other conservative white families order. We think we're going to be adventurous, but often just settle for what is familiar and "safe."

For much of my early adult life, I was similarly conservative in my eating habits. However, I was willing to experience processed food that included a few odd items. I remember trying "Tofutti" when it was a new product and few in the West who didn't grow up in an Asian or hippy family tended to have any experience with tofu. So, I did experience the occasional adventurous spike in my eating, particularly if I ran across something novel that didn't sound disgusting.

However, as I advanced into my 40's, I became more interested in expanding my palate and experience base with food. I also wanted to become a better cook and have spent the last 15 years trying to refine my skills. I am by no means an expert in anything, but my hit to miss ratios have improved as I've practiced more and done more reading. Access to the internet has done a great deal to facilitate that as I can get exactly the information that I need rather than relying on what a particular cookbook has decided to tell me.

Recently, I decided to "follow" the New York Times Food page on Facebook. This has inspired me to try several new recipes over the past few weeks and I decided that I'd like to track my "progress" as well as document how well the processes go for me. This blog will be my way of recording the recipes I try and the results that I get.