Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Where the wild apricots grow, and an even more perfect pie crust...

In Paonia, apricot trees grow wild along the roadsides of the craggy mountains surrounding the lush valley of orchards and vineyards below.  The wild trees are unpruned, untended, and impressively hardy, yielding plentiful but small fruit.  In the more cultivated orchards, though, the fruit is larger since the trees have been properly cared for.

We were the only ones strolling through one of the you-pick orchards, and filled a little basket with apricots we carefully selected.  I set up my camera on a ladder and used the self-timer to capture what turned out to be such a dreamy photo of my husband and I under the sun-dappled apricot trees.  A photo of the three of us, actually, since our baby will soon be joining our little family in just two more months.

Back at home this past week, I made batches of jam - a tart apricot jam with hints of vanilla and cloves, and a sweet Palisade peach jam with cinnamon.  For breakfast Saturday, we sampled both jams on piping hot homemade biscuits topped with cream cheese and ham.  We have enough jam to enjoy through the winter, I hope.

It's strange, but wonderful, that just five hours from Denver, this world of vineyards and orchards thrives, where the air is heavy with the scent of wine, balsamic vinegar, fields of lavender buzzing with bees, and sun-ripened fruit.  One evening for dinner in Paonia, we ate at a local restaurant that has their own garden of fruit trees, vegetables and herbs.  It's the most lovely garden you've ever stepped into, and we ate under the twisted boughs of an old apple tree, laden with fruit.  There were also plum and apricot trees, a vast array of edible flowers and herbs, tomatoes, an arbor laden with grape vines, and almond trees flanking the entrance.

I have visions of our own back yard being just as dreamy, and my husband and I planted our own peach tree this spring to see if we could grow our own peaches.  If it does well, I may try planting other fruit trees, too.

Until our own peaches ripen, I have to settle for peaches from our local grocery store, fresh when they're in season, and frozen when they're not.  I bought some peaches a month or so ago that weren't quite ripe enough, for the first peach pie of summer.  And as it turned out, I found that I preferred the slightly under-ripe peaches for pie making, as they didn't get too soft or overly juicy while baking.

I've also been working on perfecting my pie crust.  There's nothing wrong with my original all-butter pie crust recipe that I've been making for years; it's wonderful, in fact.  The simple combination of flour, a touch of sugar, salt and cold butter, with just enough ice water to barely hold it together, yields a classic, flaky pie crust that's perfect for any pie or tart.

But with just a few tweaks, I developed a recipe I love even more, and have begun using in place of the original.  The formula of flour, sugar, salt and cold butter is the same.  But instead of ice water, I whisk together an egg yolk with cold whole milk and a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar (or, you can use buttermilk instead of the whole milk and vinegar, but I never have buttermilk on hand).  And the result is simply beautiful.  I don't know if it's the added fat from the egg yolk and milk, or the acid from the small splash of vinegar, but whatever it is, I love it.

After brushing the dough with an egg wash (which gives it that beautiful golden color while baking), I used to sprinkle it with coarse turbinado sugar, but have found that I far prefer just plain granulated sugar with its finer texture.  The dusting of sugar adds a little crunch to the already flaky crust, and is the perfect contrast to the soft fruit filling inside.

All-Butter Even-More-Perfect Pie Crust

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup cold, unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons cold whole milk
  • 1 egg yolk (reserve the white for the egg wash)
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl.  Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is the size of peas.  Whisk together the milk, egg yolk and vinegar; drizzle over the flour/butter and then use your hands to bring the dough together; it should be just moistened enough to barely hold together.

Divide the dough into two equal parts, flatten into round disks, wrap each portion with plastic wrap, and then refrigerate for 10-15 minutes before rolling out.

Yields enough dough for a double-crust pie.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Peach Pie
  • 8 peaches, pitted, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn starch
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon flour

Preheat the oven to 425.

In a large bowl, toss the peaches with the brown sugar, corn starch, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Reserve the 1 tablespoon flour to sprinkle over the bottom of the crust.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out one portion of dough to 1/4 inch thick.  Fit into a deep-dish pie pan.  Sprinkle with the 1 tablespoon flour (to keep the crust from getting soggy), then pour the peaches into the crust.

Roll out the second portion of dough for the top crust, and press the edges together.  Cut a few slits in the top to vent the steam.  If you like, use any leftover scraps of dough to make decorative cutouts.

Whisk the leftover egg white with a tablespoon of water, then lightly brush the top crust with the egg wash.  Sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake the pie, uncovered, for 20 minutes at 425.  The crust should be nicely browned already, so cover with a piece of foil to prevent over-browning.  Reduce the oven temperature to 350 and bake for another 30-40 minutes, until the juices bubble up.

Cool the pie completely, preferably overnight, before serving.

Yields 8 servings

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Birthdays, Baby Showers, and Cakes

Summers are always so busy, and July has been full of birthdays and baby showers, which, of course, call for cake.  Although my husband showed me a quote today that said, "The moment you realize you don't need a special occasion to buy a cake, the second part of your life begins."  I have long felt that cakes don't need to be reserved for anything special, and am a big believer in cakes for every day.

But that said, I'm sharing just the designs for three cakes today, that did happen to be for someone's special day.

The cake above was for a baby girl's first birthday - the pretty pink buttercream rosettes hide dark chocolate layers of cake inside, which made for a dramatic contrast in the smash cake photos at her party.

The topper is one that I made with paper straws and thin strips of tissue paper.

Then, there was my own birthday cake, which I made to take along on our weekend adventure to Paonia.  Buttercream ruffles were so trendy a few years ago, and finally, I made my own ruffle cake.

As far as the candles, though, I stopped with 8, because 38 was just way too many...

Lastly, a sweet looking cake for a baby shower.  I filled three layers of fluffy white cake with homemade strawberry jam, and frosted the cake with fresh strawberry vanilla buttercream.

A pretty ribbon tied in a bow on a cake stand is one of my favorite ways to fancy up a cake display, and I hope these simple cake designs inspire and delight you.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Peach Shortbread Ice Cream

In just two days, we'll be driving south to Paonia, Colorado for a long weekend getaway.  Since we'll be in wine and peach country, it seemed only right to share this recipe for peach almond crumble shortbread bars.

The peach bars, with their buttery shortbread crust and crumble topping and juicy peach filling were fantastic.  A taste of summer.  There are few things I like more in the summer than a fresh peach, on its own, sliced on top of Honey Nut Cheerios, or sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt or a splash of cream.

I loved the almonds in the shortbread, and the almond extract tossed with the peaches, but almond-anything always wins me over.  My husband, though, not so much.  He thinks the flavor is too strong, and that it overpowered the taste of the peaches.  Either way, it's all personal preference, and they can certainly be left out of this recipe.

But since I couldn't eat the whole pan of peach bars on my own, I turned them into something I knew he would like - ice cream.  The vanilla bean custard is a classic ice cream base, and beautiful in its simplicity, but it was pretty wonderful with the crumbled peach bars folded in.

But I couldn't stop there, because, cookie ice cream sandwiches are even better than just scoops of ice cream and a spoon.  Remember the gingerbread house I made at Christmas?  I had frozen a bit of leftover gingerbread dough in December, so I thawed that out, added a little water to make the dough more pliable for cookies rather than a stiff gingerbread house, rolled it up into balls, coated them in sugar, and baked them until just barely cooked.  Which is how I like my cookies.  Soft and underdone.

The soft, sparkling ginger cookies paired beautifully with the ice cream, and sure enough, Jamie ate every last cookie ice cream sandwich.

Peach Almond Shortbread Crumb Bars

Crust and Topping.
  • 3/4 cup almonds (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 pound peeled, pitted, sliced peaches (if frozen, let thaw)
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350.  In a food processor, combine the almonds, flour, sugar and salt and pulse until the almonds are finely ground.  Add the butter, a few pieces at a time, and pulse just until moist and crumbly.  Reserve 1 cup of the crumbs and spread the remainder in a greased 8x8 baking dish.  Bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss the peaches with the flour, sugar, cinnamon and extract.  Arrange the peaches over the hot crust.  Sprinkle with the reserved crumbs.  Bake for about 35 minutes, until the topping is golden brown.  Cool completely before cutting into bars.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Peach Shortbread Ice Cream
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon
  • leftover peach shortbread bars, or any sort of fruit crumble, cobbler or crisp

In a large saucepan, whisk together the cream and milk.  Bring to a gentle simmer over medium low heat.

In another bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar.  Slowly drizzle about a cup of the hot cream into the egg yolks and whisk to temper the eggs, then scrape the mixture back into the saucepan.  Cook the custard over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thick enough to coat a spoon.

Remove from the heat and whisk in the salt, butter, vanilla and bourbon.  Pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove any bits of cooked eggs.  Cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight.

Churn the ice cream according to the manufacturer's instructions of your ice cream maker.  Fold in the leftover peach bars, then spoon into a container and freeze until firm, about 4-6 hours.

Yields about 2 quarts of ice cream.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

    Saturday, July 9, 2016

    Whole Wheat Honey Pancakes

    One of three apartments I called home during my years of teaching English in China was a 6th floor walk-up with a tiny, glass-enclosed balcony kitchen that was maybe 6 feet long and 4 feet wide.  In the winter, that kitchen became so cold that an icicle dripped from the faucet Christmas morning.  I moved in on a sweltering summer day, though, and the first thing I discovered was a colony of ants living in the refrigerator, feasting on the bread and grapes that a representative from the school had kindly left for me as a welcome gift.

    After climbing those stairs several times a day, besides walking to and from the bus stop, as well as several miles more miles to get from the bus stop to the school, I certainly felt like I'd earned my dinner.  Sadly, though, I had no oven for baking, and barely knew how to cook, so breakfast was rarely more than a cup of instant coffee, sweetened boxed milk (which was not real milk, although I'm not sure what it actually was since it didn't require refrigeration) and a packet of crackers, with dinners usually consisting of canned tuna, fruit, and instant noodles, with the occasional pot of vegetable soup to get me through the week during the colder months.

    Lunches out with students or coworkers were always the best meal of the day, some of my favorites being spicy chicken and peanuts with rice, garlicky wok-fried snow peas, or a bowl of potatoes, beef and rice smothered in a fragrant curry sauce.

    I wish I'd taken a few photos of that apartment, but that second year was a lonely one for me, and not one that I wanted to document at the time, so I only have the images that I can remember, and the feelings that still linger 12 years later.

    Fortunately for my husband, I started learning how to cook a bit better in my late 20s, so that by the time we met when I was 30, I wasn't half bad and could at least present him with a few decent meals when it was my turn to grocery shop and cook.  Still, though, I find dessert making and cake baking far more interesting and enjoyable than cooking dinner, but one can't live on cake.

    Last weekend, I was all about rewarding my husband and myself for some back-breaking yard work, so for our day off on Monday, after two hot days of weed-pulling and planting, we made pancakes for breakfast.  This is a wonderful, every-day pancake recipe, that's light and fluffy, but with a wholesome heartiness from the whole wheat flour.  They're sweetened with bananas and raw honey, and instead of smothering them with syrup, I added a dollop of whipped cream cheese with fresh berries.

    Whole Wheat Honey Pancakes with Cream Cheese and Berries

    Pancake Batter.
    • 2 medium ripe bananas
    • 1 cup whole milk
    • 1/4 cup honey
    • 1 egg
    • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla
    • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
    • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
    • 1 tablespoon honey
    • 1-2 tablespoons cream
    • berries
    • powdered sugar

    In a blender, blend the pancake batter ingredients for 30 seconds.  Heat a griddle to 275F, and spray with non-stick spray.  Measure out 1/4 cup of batter per pancake and cook the pancakes until cooked on one side before flipping to cook the other side.

    Whip the cream cheese with the honey and cream until smooth.  Garnish the pancakes with the whipped cream cheese, berries and powdered sugar.

    Yields about 14-15 pancakes.

    Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

    Wednesday, July 6, 2016

    White Cake with Berries

    Our Fourth of July weekend was busy with yardwork that never seems to end this time of year, but on Monday, we took it easy, ate a leisurely breakfast and relaxed for most of the day before heading over to a friend's house for burgers and fireworks.

    For a dessert to share at the party, I made this cake.  Dressed in a pale blue Swiss-dot sundress of buttercream, and garnished with fresh berries and flowers, it was subtly patriotic, and maybe the prettiest cake I've made.

    Inside was as lovely and delicious (and red, white and blue!), with fluffy white cake almost as light as angel food cake, and moist throughout with juicy raspberries and blueberries.

    It was pretty enough even for a wedding cake.

    White Cake with Berries


    • 2 3/4 cups cake flour
    • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
    • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
    • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 4 egg whites
    • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
    • 1 cup sour cream
    • 1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar
    • 2 teaspoons vanilla
    • 1 cup fresh blueberries
    • 1 cup fresh raspberries
    • strawberries, for garnish
    • 2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
    • 4 cups powdered sugar
    • 1 tablespoon meringue powder
    • 2 teaspoons vanilla
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 2-3 tablespoons milk or cream
    Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray two 8-inch pans and two 6-inch pans with non-stick spray (or, just use three 8-inch pans for a 1-tier cake).

    In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

    In a separate bowl (clean and grease-free), whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until soft peaks form.  Whip for another minute or two until the whites are not quite stiff, but stay on the beaters when you lift them up.  The whites should still be quite wet, not dry.

    Add the milk, sour cream, vinegar and vanilla to the dry ingredients and whisk vigorously for about two minutes until well combined.  Gently fold in the whipped egg whites in three additions for a light and airy batter.

    Divide the batter between the pans.  Scatter the raspberries and blueberries over the batter.  Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until risen and a toothpick comes out clean.  Set the pans on wire racks, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and cool completely before frosting with buttercream.

    In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter until smooth.  With the mixer on low, add the powdered sugar and meringue powder, until combined.  Add the vanilla and cream, and whip on medium high for 4-5 minutes until light and fluffy.

    Fill and frost the cake, and garnish with berries and fresh flowers.

    Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen