Sunday, November 18, 2012

Life of Pie: The Great Pumpkin Strikes Again

Seiji recently did a book report on "Hatchet," a youth novel by Gary Paulsen. In it, the 13-year-old protagonist survives a plane crash. Although a city boy lost in the wilderness, he is resourceful and manages to achieve food and shelter somehow with the use of his wits and a hatchet that his mother had given him.

Friends don't let friends pull pumpkin guts alone.
As I roasted one pumpkin after another one recent Saturday, I felt as if I too was stranded in some primitive baking wilderness. Despite easy access to perfectly fine, even organic canned pumpkin, I was somehow compelled to make pies this year from scratch, after hearing Matt's description of how he used to do the same. I thought this would make a good babysit activity for my nephews, so the four of us embarked on a pie odyssey that has ruined me for the frozen pumpkin pies of my own childhood.

As the saying goes, pie is indeed easy. But having several extra pairs of hands and almost an entire day to bake really helps. Pumpkin selection is key: don't be fooled by the pretty ones with the fluted sides that look like Cinderella's coach. You need the ones that are labeled, "pie" or "sugar" pumpkins. The ideal ones are a bit larger than a bocce ball, and about as tough. Great care must be taken when cutting them in half, and wimp that I am, I waited until the pumpkin was almost cooked through and soft enough to wrestle the stem off of it.

Matt shows off his "Ginsu Knife" skills.

The hands-on kid factor comes early on in the process. Relying on the natural destructive tendencies of the male youth, I set the boys to work on cleaning out the pumpkin seeds and guts. Even Seiji, who isn't the sous chef that Kenzo is, fell to the task with great enthusiasm.

Another thing that the male of the species is useful for is doing a really good job at scraping the pumpkin shells clean. Already exhausted from cutting and baking two or three pumpkins by myself, I let Matt take over with the rest, which he did with astonishing finesse.

For every pair of pumpkin halves, I lined a baking sheet with aluminum foil and placed them cut side down. These are baked for about a hour at 350 degrees or until they are fork tender.

Once the steaming pumpkin flesh is cool enough to handle, it can be easily scooped out of the rind and pureed. We fired up Jolene's food processor and eyeballed it as intently as Samuel Morse watching the first telegraph coming into existence. Matt had warned against stringiness in the puree, but the batter actually came out fairly smooth, with a few tiny but soft chunks of pumpkin to let the tongue know that this did not come out of a can.

As lead researcher on the project, Matt found three different recipes online. I chose the one that sounded the tastiest, with plenty of spices and the option of using heavy cream instead of canned evaporated milk. The batter is not the typical rusty orange hue that commercial pumpkin pies boast, but knowing that it was all natural made the results more appetizing for me.

When in doubt, just add chocolate.

We doubled the recipe, which yielded about three pies per batch. In our ever-vigilant mission to avoid too much sugar, Matt and I decided to reduce the recipe's proportions a bit. However, this made the first batch of pies a bit bland, except for the one I decided to dress up with a layer of Ghirardelli's 60 percent cacao chocolate chips at the bottom. This makes for a surprisingly luxe combination of flavors, which compensated for the inadequate sweetness. The holidays only come once a year - you've got to live a little!

My miniature chefs also assisted with the necessary pie crust prep work. While other kids were reading Jack and Jill and Highlights, I was reading Mad Magazine and Family Circle. From the latter, I learned that the bottom and sides of a pie crust should be pricked with a fork, a task that S + K applied themselves to with great gusto. Kenzo also enjoyed testing the pies as they came out of the oven with the requisite toothpick test for doneness. I had to tell him, however, that you only have to poke the pie once or twice, not 32 times. In addition, I covered the edges of my frozen pie shells with strips of foil to prevent burning. Sounds silly, but it works!

Baking brothers: Not sure why poking holes in the crust is
necessary, but it gave S + K something to do!
Baking is a lot like yoga, flying, or trying to survive in the wilderness. There are moments of extreme apprehension and fear of the unknown. There are obvious rewards like a firm core, the exhilaration of flying a plane, or knowing that you can cope with whatever comes.

But better than all of these rewards, baking is something that is best when shared, whether the experience, the hopefully tasty results or an irresistible combination of both. My best memories of baking as a kid - albeit a kid that was old enough to use the oven - include a sense of empowerment, as well as a warm feeling that I was able to provide others with something they could enjoy.  Friends who don't bake can always eat!

Pumpkin Pie From Scratch - Almost!

•    2 cups of pumpkin pulp purée plus extra, from a sugar pumpkin or from canned pumpkin purée
•    1 1/2 cup heavy cream or 1 12 oz. can of evaporated milk
•    1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
•    1/3 cup white sugar
•    1/2 teaspoon salt
•    2 eggs plus the yolk of a third egg
•    2 teaspoons of cinnamon
•    1 teaspoon ground ginger
•    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
•    1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
•    1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
•    1 good crust (I cheated with the frozen kind, but recommend this yummy whole wheat crust recipe if you are willing to make the effort!)

(To make pumpkin purée from a sugar pumpkin: start with a small-medium sugar pumpkin, cut out the stem and scrape out the insides. Cut the pumpkin in half and lay cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet lined with silpat or aluminum foil. Bake at 350°F until fork tender, about an hour to an hour and a half. Remove from oven, let cool, scoop out the pulp.

Alternatively you can cut the pumpkin into sections and steam in a saucepan with a couple inches of water at the bottom, until soft. If you want the pulp to be extra smooth, put it through a food mill or chinois.)

"Black Bottom" pumpkin pie

1)   Preheat oven to 425°F.

2)   Mix sugars, salt, and spices, and lemon zest in a large bowl. Beat the eggs and add to the bowl. Stir in the pumpkin purée. Stir in cream. Whisk all together until well incorporated.

3)   Pour into pie shell and bake at 425°F for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes reduce the temperature to 350°F. Bake 40-50 minutes, or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

4) Cool pies on a wire rack for two hours - or until you can't wait any longer and have to sample a slice!

Helpful Hints:

1)    We doubled the recipe, with each batch yielding three pies. Also, we added a ¾ cup or so of extra pumpkin and 1 tsp. (for double batch) of vanilla extract.

2)    Cover the edge of the pie crust with aluminum foil to avoid burning.

3)    I didn’t use the cardamom, but that would be a tasty addition to the melange of spices.

4)    Yes, this is a perishable item - please store it in the refrigerator, if it lasts that long! I read that the baked pies do not freeze well, as the custard will get watery. However, baked pumpkin can be frozen for a couple of weeks in advance.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hope "Springs" Eternal: Brodard's Signature Appetizer is on a Roll

There seems to be a misconception that spring rolls are a better appetizer than egg rolls because they are not deep-fried. I have an addendum to this: spring rolls just plain taste better than egg rolls, period.

Friends don't let friends eat spring rolls without Brodard's
warm and piquant sauce! Anna and I enjoying the
famed grilled pork sausage spring rolls. Photo by Matt Palmer
While the classic shrimp filling is always a treat, tofu is actually a great guilt-free option for spring rolls. The other side of the coin is the pork sausage spring roll at Brodard's Restaurant in Garden Grove.

Nem nướng cuốn is the Vietnamese name for the grilled slices of pork sausage that vaguely resemble slices of Spam. The term, "Nem Nướng" is also emblazoned like a credo on the uniforms of the food servers at Brodard's.

"E pluribus unum." "In vino veritas." These are memorable slogans. What translates to "grilled pork paste" may not be on everyone's lips, but Anna, Karen, Matt, and I were happy to have it on our plates at Brodard's.

The je ne sais quoi of the spring roll is its economy of presence that belies its flavorful impact. A tightly wrapped bundle of a tasty protein, artistically placed shreds of carrot, daikon, and cucumber, and mint leaves doesn't sound like a lot. When combined with Brodard's unusual house sauce - a cross between a remoulade and the ubiquitous Sriracha - the result is like comfort food with a kick. And a crunch. And some zip.

Bánh xèo is a tasty Southeast Asian twist on the French crepe,
with fresh textures and plenty of crunch factor.
Also notable was the bánh xèo, my favorite Vietnamese dish, next to pho, of course. The cheery yellow crepe gets its color and coconut-like scent from the addition of tumeric. It is filled with shrimp, chicken, bean sprouts, and other vegetables, and is eaten by wrapping pieces of the pancake in lettuce leaves and garnishing it with more greenery such as mint, or in Brodard's case, the refreshing Japanese herb, shiso.

Anna, who grew up in Vietnam, says that "xèo" refers to the sound that the crepe batter makes when hitting a sizzling hot griddle.

The unanimously favored dish on the table was the roasted duck salad, garnished with huge shrimp chips. These are a throwback for almost anyone who grew up in an Asian household. The ones we ate as kids were terribly greasy, but came in appetizing candy colors. The shrimp chips at Brodard's were a natural ivory color and were non-greasy and light - today's additive-conscious parents would approve.

We did get some vivid color with our dessert. The ever-popular French macaron beckoned from the display case by the front door, in vibrant and tempting rows of sweetness. I snapped up a few for a sweet treat later, as we were all pretty full. We enjoyed them with a beer (?) at Karen's. Not my first choice of an accompanying beverage for macarons, but on a warm autumnal afternoon with friends, it worked pretty well.

Before the miracle of the Internet, we in the United States previously learned about unusual foods from previously unknown and mysterious cultures only because we ended up going to war with or against them. However, as human nature eventually realizes, we are stronger when we combine forces rather than when we pull them apart. The proof is in the pudding. Or in Brodard's case, in the matcha, salted caramel, durian, and coconut macarons.Tiếng Gọi Công Dân; Vive le France.