Baking Pumpkin Bars for Eighty

Recently, a friend was cooking at a dinner for eighty people, one of these social events where everyone pitches in to help cover the costs of the food. Being from the panhandle of Florida, she was preparing a Cajun-inspired menu and asked if I would help with the dessert. While I was originally going to make sweet potato pie, plans morphed and we ended up with pumpkin bars, which turned out nicely nonetheless.

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Sweet potato pie would have been much more authentic for a Cajun dessert but local sweet potatoes are very small and the larger imported sweet potatoes are ridiculously expensive. I opted instead for pumpkins, which are plentiful and much less expensive. Scaling up from a recipe that serves maybe 16 people, I wasn’t sure just how much pumpkin I needed, so bought six.

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After cutting them, steaming them, and peeling and mashing the flesh, I had a lot of pumpkin puree. In fact, it was about half again what I ended up needing. That’s okay – you can freeze pumpkin puree.

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Instead of a usual pie crust, I decided on a recipe that used shortbread. Shortbread is not only easier to make than pie crust, it also adds a different dimension to the texture – providing a crispier base versus a tender and flaky one.

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Instead of pies, which would be more difficult to transport, I opted for four large aluminum trays that came with plastic covers. I spread the shortbread dough on the bottom and then baked it for about 15 minutes until it started firming up and tanning.

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The filling was pumpkin puree, brown sugar, cream, egg yolks, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger powder, and cloves. I whipped egg whites in a separate bowl and folded them into the mixture, creating a lighter texture.

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The filling baked in about thirty minutes. After cooling to room temperature, I put the four trays in my refrigerator and carried them to the event the next afternoon. A little chilling helps film up the pumpkin pie and makes it much easier to cut and serve.

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The end product, shown from a smaller test batch I did two days before. This version didn’t have the egg whites whipped separately, so the filling isn’t as tall as in the final version. Still just as tasty, though!

 

Baking: Lychee and Rhubarb Pie

Two weekends ago I traveled to Samut Songkhram, the smallest of Thailand’s 77 provinces, located about ninety minutes to the southwest of Bangkok. There I had lunch with Ajarn Yai (literally, “big teacher”), the retired director of the rural school where I previously volunteered as an English teacher. This being lychee season, Ajarn Yai insisted that we take several big bunches of freshly-harvested lychees. Once home, I decided to try something new: a lychee-rhubarb pie.

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Lychee are the fruit of an evergreen tree that grows in tropical and subtropical climates. The fruit is round, about one inch (two to three centimeters) in diameter, and is covered in a leathery rind. Peeling is easy, if slightly tedious.

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The interior flesh has a grape-like texture – firm but slightly squishy. Most lychee have a large, inedible pit but some trees produce seedless fruit informally called khathoey (or ladyboy) lychee by the Thais. The flavor of lychee is sweet and perfumey, not overpowering but slightly astringent – especially in not-quite-ripe fruit.

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It is this astringency that made me think of rhubarb. Since the lychee were sweet and astringent and the rhubarb is tart, I thought they might make a refreshing dessert – kind of in the same way that a lemon sorbet can cleanse your palate between courses in a meal. I peeled the lychee, chopped the rhubarb, and mixed in some sugar and corn starch as a thickener.

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Trying something different for my pie crust, I cut rounds (in honor of the shape of the lychee) to form the top crust. It then went into the oven for about 40 minutes until the crust was golden and the filling cooked through.

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The end result: The filling was a little dryer than I would have liked and quite tart, too. That’s probably because I added only a half-cup of sugar. I liked the flavor, though, and it worked very nicely as a refreshing dessert after a richly flavored meal, cutting through the flavors of the meal better than a heavier, sweeter dessert would. Next time, though, I think a bit more sugar is called for and also a few minutes of pre-cooking the filling to extract more juices.

 

Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

A few weeks ago a friend asked me to show her how to make pie crust. When I asked what kind of pie she wanted to make, she suggested a sweet potato pie. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never had a sweet potato pie. Nonetheless, I agreed and sought out a recipe. Ultimately, I settled on a combination sweet potato / pecan pie.

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The sweet potato pie isn’t that far off from a pumpkin pie. You roast sweet potatoes, skin them,then mix the flesh with sugar, a little salt, and an egg. That filling is put into an unbaked pie shell and topped with pecans and a pecan pie filling – a sugar syrup and egg mixture. Bake it until set.

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End result with freshly made whipped cream. Turned out nicely!

 

Sunday Brunch

Sunday morning we hosted brunch for a group of friends, all of whom work (or used to work) in the aviation industry.  Needless to say, the topic of conversation frequently turned back to shared work experiences.  Despite this, we still had time to enjoy a relaxed meal of salad, sandwiches, and dessert.

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A ripe, juicy watermelon from a roadside stall in Korat province provided the inspiration for a cool, refreshing summer salad.  Trying to scoop melon balls while avoiding seeds was a challenge, though!

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Based loosely on a recipe by the New York Times’ Mark Bittman, this salad features just four ingredients: watermelon, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, and fresh mint.  I didn’t dress the salad with a red wine vinaigrette as Mr. Bittman suggests, because when I tasted the combination I found the flavors already beautifully balanced.

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To make the main course, I first baked a batch of focaccia bread, the light, airy, rosemary infused Italian style bread.  This batch was based on a recipe in the Los Angeles Times by La Brea Bakery owner Nancy Silverton.  The problem is, the recipe is missing the last step: how long to cook the bread and at what temperature!  Critical information, methinks.  Referencing another recipe, 450 F for 15-20 minutes was sufficient.

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Despite the absence of time and temperature information, the loaf turned out nicely and when paired with some herb smoked ham from Soulfood Mahanakorn, provolone cheese, and a roasted red bell pepper and onion relish I made, we had some beautiful paninis.

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For dessert, I made one of Tawn’s favorites: banoffee pie.  This British import features a layer of rich toffee on a cookie crumb crust, covered with freshly sliced bananas, whipped cream, a drizzle of coffee flavored syrup, and chocolate shavings.  Instead of making a cheat version of the toffee, I made it the old fashioned way: boiling tins of sweetened condensed milk in a water bath for three hours until the contents caramelize.  Care must be taken to keep the tins fully submerged, otherwise they will explode and spray your kitchen with boiling hot caramel.

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The end result – my first ever attempt at this dish – had its ups and downs.  The crust hadn’t been made with enough butter so it didn’t hold up well, collapsing under the weight of the filling.  The toffee, which was insanely tasty, was too much – one can would have been plenty.  I didn’t whip the cream quite enough so it didn’t hold its shape and instead spilled through the collapsing crust.

But, despite all that, it was really tasty.  I’ll try again one of these days and refine the recipe.

 

Baking Pecan Tarts

Every time I visit the US, I make a trip to Costco and buy several pounds of pecans and walnuts.  Nuts (with the exception of cashews, peanuts, and macadamias, all of which are grown locally) are very expensive here in Thailand and I enjoy adding nuts to salads, pestos, and of course desserts.  Recently, I perfected a pecan pie recipe that makes wonderful two-bite-sized tarts.

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The recipe started out from one contributed by an unknown source on the Food Network’s site.  As such, they warned that the recipe had not been tested.  Certainly not, as I found out after an initial mishap.  Let’s put it this way: adding beaten eggs directly into boiling sugar syrup makes for sweet scrambled eggs – not a proper pecan pie filling!

Instead, I rewrote the directions and, after testing two batches, made some adjustments to the ingredients to reduce the sweetness and richness of the filling while adding some depth of flavor thanks to the use of maple syrup.

Pecan Pie or Tarts

1 stick butter (4 oz or 115 g)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup¹
1/2 cup maple syrup²
2 eggs plus 3 egg whites, beaten well
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans (or 1 cup plus whole pecans to layer the top of the pie)
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell, or 12 small tart pans lined with pastry dough³

Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C). In a saucepan, melt the butter but don’t let it brown. Mix in the sugar, corn syrup, and maple syrup and cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until the sugar dissolves.

Temper the eggs by slowly pouring the sugar mixture into them while whisking continuously. Stir in the pecans then pour the mixture into the pie or tart shells. If you want to decorate the top(s) with whole pecans, you can do so.

Bake 1 hour or until firm when shaken. Let cool before serving.  If you are making the tarts in a muffin tin, you should carefully remove them to a wire rack after ten minutes of cooling, so they do not stick.

¹ Note that the corn syrup you buy in the store (like Karo brand) is not high-fructose corn syrup. 
² I think the Grade B maple syrup, which has a richer flavor, is nice to use.  If you have only regular maple syrup, that is fine, too.  You can also substitute corn syrup if you do not have maple syrup.
³ Instead of tart pans, you can also use a muffin tin.

Pecan pies and tarts freeze beautifully after they are cooked.  They can be warmed up in the oven for about 15 minutes before serving and they’ll be just as nice as if they were freshly-baked.

 

Cooking – Feta and Spinach Phyllo Pie

To ensure a tasty start to the new year, I cooked a simple but fulfilling brunch for Tawn and myself, a feta and spinach pie made with phyllo dough.  The recipe was based on one in Jamie Oliver’s “30 Minute Meals” series, which is available on iTunes.

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The filling is eggs, feta cheese, cheddar cheese, and sauteed spinach seasoned with a little nutmeg, dried oregano, and salt and pepper.  I modified the recipe slightly, substituting provolone for the cheddar and also sauteeing an onion to give the filling more flavor.  The exterior is formed of sheets of phyllo dough, splashed with extra virgin olive oil and a dusting of sweet paprika.  The dough is folded over the top to create a sealed pie and then baked in a skillet in the oven for 20 minutes.

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The result is a flaky crust and an oozy, rich interior – a combination of flavors and textures that is very appealing.  When paired with a mixed greens salad (in our case with some steamed beets and persimmon), it is a very pleasant meal and a tasty start to 2012!

 

Macadamia Nut Cream Pie – Attempt 2

Please feel some sympathy for my tough plight.  My attempts to find the macadamia nut cream pie of my childhood is forcing me to bake and eat pie after pie after pie.  Oh, the horror!  Yes, the quest continues and this past weekend I made another MNCP (let’s abbreviate, shall we?) using a recipe that Aaron graciously sought out from his sister.

Just looking at the recipe, it struck me as being pretty close to what I had in mind.  The custard filling has cornstarch to thicken it and the ground nuts are added at the end of the process, so they aren’t cooked too much.  Macadamia nuts seem to lose their flavor when cooked.  The one thing I wanted to change was the shape.  Her recipe is made with a shortbread crust in a 9-inch square baking dish but I wanted to use a traditional pastry crust in a pie plate.  Other than that, though, I followed the recipe religiously.

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The ingredients are simple: milk, sugar, corn starch, pinch of salt, eggs, vanilla, macadamia nuts, and a pre-baked pie crust.

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I have a lot of trouble with pie crusts and need to practice more.  This one shrunk on me something fierce.  Too much water, I think.  Maybe time for a food processor.  (Wishful thinking with my lack of counter space.)

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The larger portion of the milk and sugar are heated until near-boiling.  The smaller portion of milk along with the eggs and corn starch are mixed together.  Then you add a bit of the hot milk-sugar mixture into the milk-egg mixture to warm it up.  This is called tempering.  Then you pour the milk-egg mixture into the milk-sugar mixture, cooking for another five minutes or so until it thickens.  Add the vanilla (there was too much at two teaspoons – tasted too vanilla-y) and the chopped nuts.  It is then added to the pie crust and allowed to set in the fridge for at least six hours.

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Looks pretty, despite my lame decoration with whipped cream.  Maybe I should buy a more decorative tip for my pastry bag?  But the real question is, how did it turn out?  A short video answers that question:

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In short, good taste but still not set.  Thinking this through, I have a theory about the problem.  I think it is the eggs.  The eggs here look smaller than the ones in the US.  It that is the case, then the recipe doesn’t have enough of the protein from the eggs to help give it structure.  The two egg recipe probably could use a third egg.  Anyone want to validate that theory or am I going to have to cook  yet another pie and suffer through the experience of eating it, just to test the theory? 

Yeah, woe is me, right?