30 July 2012

Soda Cracker Pie

Necessity is the mother of invention.  Plato originally introduced the idea in "The Republic", and Southern cooks have truly taken it to heart.  Soda Cracker Pie is a great example of that ingenuity.  This pie takes what seems like nothing and turns it into a really tasty pie.

egg whites beaten to soft peaks
If you haven't heard of it before, you are probably asking youself, "What the heck is Soda Cracker Pie?".  Well, it does use soda crackers, or saltines, but unlike many of my favorite desserts, it is not the slightest bit salty.  The base of this pie is egg whites, so it is essentially a meringue in pie form.  The texture is reminicent of a Parisian macaron -- crispy on the outside and slightly chewy in the middle.  This heavenly, light pie is the opposite of everything you would expect from something that uses crackers as its primary ingredient.

Soda Cracker Pie is super simple, too.  It's waaaay easier than making macarons.  Since you don't have to fool with a crust, this pie takes about 10 minutes to pull together (and most of that is whipping the egg whites).  If you have been reading my blog, you know I'm a big fan of really easy desserts.  This pie is one of the easiest around.

pie just before going into the oven
I must warn you -- this pie is not pretty.  It is almost impossible to cut a nice, clean slice without the edges crumbling.  It's all about the way it tastes, though.  Right??  This pie also needs to  be served with whipped cream.  Well, actually it needs to be served with whipped topping, a.k.a. Cool Whip.  I have tried this pie with real whipped cream, which I love more than almost anything, but there is something about the flavor of whipped topping that just works perfectly with this pie. 

finished pie ready for eatin'
Soda Cracker Pie
makes one 8" pie

Print me, Please!!!

3 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 cup granulated sugar
16 soda crackers, crushed
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c chopped pecans
whipped topping or sweetened whipped cream for serving

Preheat oven to 325°.

Beat the egg whites until foamy.  Add the cream of tartar and beat until stiff peaks form.  Gradually add the sugar, a few tablespoons at a time.  Beat on high until mixture is glossy.  Fold in soda crackers, vanilla, and pecans until fully incorporated.  Pour mixture into a lightly greased 8" pie plate. 

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until lightly golden.  Let cool completely in pan.

Serve with a dollop of whipped topping.

*note -- don't worry about crushing the crackers evenly or too finely.  Just make sure there aren't any big chunks and you'll be fine.

26 July 2012

Bridge Parties and Toffee Bars

The weekly bridge game used to be the place to be.  Sometimes I wish we could go back to the days when all the girls got together once a week to gossip, play cards, and eat great snacks.  Since I had kids, I don't get nearly enough time with my girlfriends.  The Olive Ball recipe I posted on Monday made me start thinking about those weekly bridge games and all the wicked fun and gossip that happened around the card tables.  Those card games sure sound like fun to me. 

Toffee Bars were a mainstay at many of those weekly bridge games.  They appeal to me on lots of levels.  These are sweet, salty, oh-so-elegant, and terrifically easy.  All my favorite things.  These are really just gussied-up cookies.  The best thing about them is that the extra fanciness only takes about 5 more minutes.  Who am I to complain when the addition of chocolate and nut topping adds almost no time and elevates a simple cookie to one that is truly sublime? 

Toffee Bars were traditionally served with coffee.  I decided to skip that step and add some espresso powder to the dough.  The espresso powder adds some extra depth of flavor to the cookie without needing to drink some hot coffee in the middle of the sweltering summer -- plus chocolate and coffee really like hanging out together.

23 July 2012

Olive Balls -- Treats for My Husband

My husband loves green olives.  The quality of a pizza place is partially based on whether they have green olives as a topping.  An extra large jar of green olives lasts two weeks at most around him.  His favorite snack is a concoction of his own -- olive dip.  It's a combination of green olives, cream cheese, milk, and onion powder.  I know it may not sound super appetizing to everyone, but it is delicious if you love green olives like he does.  

Because my husband loves green olives so much, I am always on the lookout for new treats for him that showcase green olives.  I came across recipes for Olive Balls in quite a few southern cookbooks.  I had never had them before.  The recipes I have seen are basically a mutation of sausage balls.  Just leave out the sausage and wrap the dough around a green olive and you get Olive Balls.  I had to tinker with the dough a bit to give it a little more kick and make it a little more moist.  The problem with sausage balls for me is that they are usually too dry.  I took care of that problem by adding some cream cheese to the dough.  (Thanks to my husband's olive dip for giving me the idea.)  Because of the cream cheese, my dough turns into a cheesy, savory pie crust wrapped around an olive rather than crumbly like most sausage balls.  I know my southern ancestors didn't use smoked paprika or chipotle pepper.  They are probably rolling over in their graves, but the paprika and chipotle really add some nice smoky flavor to the dough.  It's a nice counterpoint to the super-briny olives.

19 July 2012

Triple Chocolate Chip Pistachio Cookies

In my last post I talked about how some of our favorite foods were created by accident.  Chocolate chip cookies were one of those accidents.  Thank goodness Ruth Wakefield ran out of cocoa powder.  She stirred some chopped chocolate into her cookie dough, thinking the chocolate would melt and do the same job as the cocoa powder.  The chocolate didn't melt the way she thought it would, instead she invented the most popular cookie in America.

Chocolate chip cookies have all kinds of variations and most people have definite preferences.  I like mine a little soft and chewy in the center with a nice wide band of crunchiness around the edge.  Getting both of those textures in one little cookie is perfection.  Throw some chocolate into the equation and it's heaven.  So many recipes claim to be the best one around.  I'm not bold enough to proclaim my recipe the best, but it is really darn tasty.

i use a small ice cream scoop for perfect cookie portions
As much as my tendency would be to add as much chocolate and other yummies as possible to my cookie dough, not adding too much is one of the keys to a great chocolate chip cookie.  You want a little something in every bite, but you don't want to  upstage the cookie dough -- it's delicious, too.  You can add tons of variety to your cookies, but you have to use restraint when you consider how much of each addition to put into your dough.  This recipe is a good example of that restraint.  I used bittersweet, semisweet, and white chocolate chips, but just a little of each, so I got a little bit of all three chocolates in each cookie.  I also added roasted, salted pistachios to fulfill my need for that touch of saltiness.

I did a little experiment with these cookies.  I baked the batches at two different oven temperatures to see how the cookies were affected by a higher cooking temperature, and therefore a faster cooking time.  The cookies cooked at the lower temperature were a little taller and the band of crunchiness around the edge was not quite as wide as the cookies baked at the higher temperature.  You can see the difference in the two pictures I posted below.  I will let you decide which you might prefer, or you could try both and decide for yourself.

15 July 2012

Praline Topped Brownies

Some of your favorite foods happened by accident: brownies, chocolate chip cookies, popsicles, potato chips.  I just might believe the most common story about brownies.  The story goes that a housewife in Maine forgot to add baking powder to her chocolate cake, so it didn't rise properly.  She served the cake anyway and it was delicious.  What's not to love about an even more intensely chocolatey cake?  Brownies were born.  

I have had writer's block over this post.  I don't have any clever stories about brownies.  I just like brownies, so I wanted to do a post about 'em.  Although I love baking and I almost exclusively bake sweets, I don't have much of a sweet tooth.  If you give me something that's both salty and sweet, though, I'm all yours.  The praline topping on these brownies fills that bill.  It's not absolutely salty, but it does have enough that you get a little salty bite on your tongue every now and then.  These brownies are also a little more job security for me, too, since my boss is a nut for anything involving pralines.  He declared these brownies the best thing I have ever made.

The world is divided on what texture a brownie should have -- gooey or cakey.  I fall firmly in the gooey camp and so do these brownies.  For a perfectly gooey brownie, you want a toothpick or cake tester put in the center of the brownies to come out caked with a mixture that is half crumbs/half chocolate goo.  The edges will also pull away from the edges of the pan once your brownies are cooked.

12 July 2012

Mango Nectarine Raspberry Crostata

mango nectarine raspberry crostata

I'm a lucky momma in a lot of ways.  Both of my boys love fruit.  I haven't found a fruit yet that they don't both scarf down.  So, I am always on the lookout for new types of fruit for them to try out.  I went shopping with my mom today and walked out of the store with some really lovely fruit.  I had never heard of one of these lovelies, though, so I had to do a little taste test to figure out a good pairing.  The unknown fruit is the Mango Nectarine.  These are a hybrid nectarine whose flavor is a cross between a mango and a nectarine.  They are not actually related to the mango, contrary to the implication of the name.  I decided to pair them with raspberries, since I thought the tartness would offset the sweetness of the nectarines nicely.

A crostata is a type of Italian dessert tart, but the term also refers to a type of rustic, free-form pie similar to what Southerners call a Slab Pie.  Slab Pies usually have a top crust, though.  I haven't ever made a crostata before, but this beautiful fruit was crying out to be shown off.  No top crust for these guys...so crostata was the way to go.  The idea of this dessert goes against my grain.  I am logical and methodical.  I am a baker because I love the precision and the science of it.  The beauty of the crostata is that you can make it into an oval, a square, a rectangle, an octagon...let your imagination run wild.  Or you can let the shape your pie crust wants to roll out into dictate your crostata's shape.

Be sure to line your baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper.  If the fruit juices leak out of the crust, the parchment will keep your crostata from being permanently stuck to your baking pan by the caramelized fruit juices and sugars.

This crostata is truly some deep summer lusciousness at its best.  The bittersweet tang of the nectarines and raspberries, the sweetness of the juices, the crumbly crust with the occasional crunch of muscovado sugar. Yummy, yummy, yummy.  I put just a little drizzle of cream over mine for serving.  You could also serve it with ice cream or whipped cream if you feel like it.

09 July 2012

Ambrosia Pie -- A Tribute to my Grandpa

My grandpa was a hoot.  He lived his life to the fullest every day until he had a stroke that left him almost completely blind and with greatly impaired mobility.  I like to think that he kept that same zest for life even after he had to move into a nursing home.  At the nursing home he kept an imaginary pet -- a tiny horse that sat in the palm of his hand, carried on conversations with him, and lived in a shoe box under his bed.  That tiny pony kept us smiling when we went to visit him.

My grandpa served in the army during World War II.  He was stationed in Hawaii when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place.  While he was in the islands he developed a love for pineapple.  This love got passed on to my mom and me.  I truly love all things pineapple, but that love is boosted by the fact that it reminds me of my grandpa.

If you aren't familiar with Ambrosia Salad, it is a southern tradition.  It is a mixture of whipped cream, pineapple, oranges, and coconut.  It can also contain chopped nuts and cherries.  Ambrosia Salad gets its name from the nectar drunk by the Greek gods.  Many Southerners consider a proper Ambrosia Salad to be heaven-sent.  This cool salad sure is a blessing during the sweltering summer months.

almond windmill cookie, a.k.a. Speculoos
This pie is such a snap, but making it didn't go down without a tiny bump in the road.  This bump turned out to be a great one, though.  I went to a local store to buy graham crackers for the crust, only to find that they were ridiculously overpriced.  I didn't want to make another stop, so I started searching for an alternative.  I ended up with Windmill Cookies, also called Speculoos.  These cookies, heady with spices and almonds, worked out so much better than graham crackers ever would.  They made the best crust I could have imagined.  The crust was just as easy as a graham cracker crust, but had so much more depth of flavor thanks to those almonds and spices.  You can substitute a graham cracker crust if you want to save time or can't find these cookies.

The filling for this pie comes together in about 2 minutes.  No kidding.  The crust takes about 10 minutes to pull together.  For something so airy, light, and delightful, I think that about 15 minutes of hands-on time is absolutely worth it. 

05 July 2012

Slushes for Grown Ups

from left to right: watermelon-moonshine, peach-bourbon,
 and grapefruit-vodka granitas

It's hot.  So unbelievably hot.  It has been over 100° six of the last seven days.  These are the perfect recipes for this weather and a nice relief from the unbearable heat.  My husband calls them Lush Slushes.  Technically these are granitas, not slushes, but his name for them makes me smile.

When I was a kid there was a snow cone stand about a mile from my house called Ethel's Sno-Cones.  I got to go every so often in the summertime, usually with my grandpa.  They had what felt like a million flavors in my mind.  I could never pick just one and always ended up with the rainbow cone -- a stripe of flavor to match each color of the rainbow.  Granita brings back those sweet memories of my grandpa and Ethel's Sno-Cones, but in a much more sophisticated flavor and color palette.

Granita is a frozen dessert made from sugar, water, and flavoring.  It originates from Sicily and is similar to sorbet or italian ice.  The texture can vary from very smooth to quite chunky.  The smooth varieties are made in ice cream or gelato machines.  The chunky variety is made with occasional stirring and it is then scraped to produce crystals.  The latter method is the one I prefer.  It's so simple and the texture is so light and airy, much like snow cones or shaved ice.  Granita takes some time to freeze but only requires about 15 minutes of actual on-hands labor.  Just go in the kitchen and stir it with a fork periodically.

You can make these kid-friendly as well.  Just leave out the alcohol or throw the liquid granita mixture on the stove for a few minutes to boil off some of the alcohol if you still want that flavor in there.  Just let the juice mixture cool before putting it in the freezer.

I had planned on the following three granita flavors:  Peach-Bourbon, Ruby Red Grapefruit-Vodka, and Watermelon-Tequila.  The first two went off without a hitch.  The third had a minor hiccup -- I didn't have any tequila.  I ended up using moonshine, the most southern substitute possible.  I gave my husband a bottle of Arkansas Lightning moonshine for Christmas.  It is made here in Little Rock by Rock Town Distillery.  The moonshine worked out well as a substitute, but I am leaving the tequila in the recipe and offering moonshine as the alternative.

01 July 2012

Butterscotch Bourbon Chess Pie

The story of how Chess Pie might have gotten its name is ridiculous.  I don't think it could possibly be true.  The story goes that a Northerner was visiting the South and eating a piece of pie.  That slice of pie was just delicious and he asked the woman what kind of pie it was.  Her response was "It's just pie." (in a very thick southern accent).  He mistook her southern accent on the word "just" for the word chess and that's how this delicious pie supposedly got its name.  I don't believe a word of it. 

If you aren't familiar with Chess Pie, it is way more than just pie.  Chess Pie is a custard pie with no top crust that has a bit of cornmeal in the custard.  I have seen a handful of recipes without the cornmeal, but the cornmeal is what differentiates a Chess Pie from a regular custard pie in my opinion.

I have been making this pie for quite a while now and have always used regular bourbon.  This time I made it using the Bourbon Cream Liqueur I made earlier in the week.  It was a little creamier with the Bourbon Cream Liqueur, but it is still super decadent with straight bourbon.  The one thing I can almost guarantee you will have to go out and get especially for this pie is Butterscotch Schnapps.  The idea from this pie came from a bottle of Buttershots I already had in my pantry.  My best friend Emily and I had a New Year's Eve tradition of drinking Butterscotch Schnapps.  I have no idea where that tradition started, but I know it's why I was lucky enough to have the idea for this pie.

I am a big fan of desserts that taste like they take a lot more effort than they actually require.  This is definitely one of those.  The preparation for this pie takes about 15 minutes of hands-on time and about 50 minutes in the oven.  This pie is heady with the flavors of bourbon and butterscotch with a hints of caramel and nutty undertones.  It is also extraordinarily rich.  Serve it in small slices and savor it slowly.


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