Trends – they’re not just for this year’s fashion

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 15, 2011

Trends, they may not be for me, and they may not be for you, but they’re always interesting. I listened with care to NPR’s recent piece on 2011, which said we should look for the following:

• Death of the cupcake. (One cupcake company, Crumbs, does not know this. They are going public and plan to open 200 stores in 2011.) Last year, it was that doughnuts were the new cupcakes. This year: pies are the new cupcake. Now pies, I can embrace, especially savory ones. I was just married and starting to cook when I went to a cooking class and learned how to make a really good piecrust. That made all the difference in the world for my pies.

• Veggies are the new meat. They quoted my guru Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

If you haven’t read his Omnivore’s Dilemma or In Defense of Food – do. It could change the way you think and eat. Thomas Jefferson, my husband’s hero, said more than 200 years ago that he used a little meat to season his vegetables. He often attributed his long life to the abundance of vegetables and salads in his diet rather than animal flesh, and to his preference for wine over strong spirits. And quoting Jefferson, I must add his idea that wine is “a necessity of life.” He also considered olive oil a practical necessity.

• Kale is in. I suspect we will continue to eat more collards and mustard and turnip greens than kale or chard, greens grown further north. And I think poke sallet is as good as spinach. Root veggies are the new heirlooms. Turnips, beets anyone?

• Childhood nutrition is in. Obesity is the new tobacco. Tobacco is not a problem for me, and if we ate as Pollan directed, the obesity issue would be less of a problem for everyone.

• Junk food has gone upscale with hot dog restaurants. Doubt that I will be affected by this one.

• Food halls like Harrods in London are appearing in the larger metropolitan areas. I must say Harrods is a place to see and it makes you want to buy and go home and cook – not exactly an option when in London.

If pies are in this year, (and I have heard that Michele Obama really likes pies), I think we should learn to do a great pie crust. I really think there is nothing more tasteless that the frozen pie crusts that you buy from the frozen food section in the grocery store. Pie crust is basically made of three ingredients: flour, fat (in the form of butter, lard or shortening) and ice water. When making pie crust, some prefer the savory flavor of a short crust, while others prefer a sweet crust, sometimes called sweet dough. The difference between the two is that the latter has sugar mixed into the dough, which yields a more crumbly crust, as opposed to a flaky one.

When flour is worked with liquid, gluten develops. Gluten is a protein that, in essence, forms a web to help give a bread product its structure while baking. The more flour is worked, the longer the gluten strands become.

The goal when making a pie crust is to cut the gluten strands to keep them short. The first step in achieving this is to adequately coat the flour in fat. This is why a recipe will often call for cutting the shortening into the flour until it resembles small peas or sand. When the flour is coated in fat, it is more difficult for gluten to develop.

Proper temperature is also crucial. Once the fat has been added to the flour, do not allow it to melt by adding warm liquid or overworking it by hand. Always use ice-cold liquid so the integrity of the fat remains intact, and prepare the crust in a cool part of the kitchen, not hear a stove or dishwasher in use.

Last, mix the ingredients just to the point of being combined, wrap the dough in plastic, and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Another secret of a good pie crust is to always sift the flour before adding any fats or liquids. Sifting breaks up any clumps and adds air to the mixture. Also, if you are making something that requires little mixing, sift the flour first, then add the other dry ingredients and then sift two more times to disperse the other ingredients into the flour. Always roll the dough on a cool surface.

No-Fail Pie Crust

Makes 1 (9-inch double pie crust)

3 cups sifted all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon coarse salt

½ cup lard, cut into pieces

½ cup cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 egg, well beaten and chilled

6 tablespoons ice water (plus more, if needed)

1 teaspoon vinegar, chilled

Sift the flour and salt together into a large bowl. Add the lard and butter and cut them into the flour with a pastry blender until they resemble small peas.

In a separate bowl, mix the egg, water and vinegar. Add to the flour mixture and mix quickly with your hands until just combined.

If too dry, add a little more cold water, a tablespoon at a time. Roll the dough into a ball and slightly flatten. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, before using.

There are endless varieties of fillings for the perfect pie crust. Some helpful hints for fillings include: when doing pecan pies use pecan pieces instead of halves, the pieces form a crisp sweet crust than cannot be achieved with halves; add a few drops of lemon juice or zest to a berry filling mixture because it will enhance the flavors of the fruit; if the berries will not thicken, toss the berries with a handful of flour or cornstarch before mixing them in the base; as for ice box pies, use only fruits that are in season and it will always taste best; as for meringues, use powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar and you will not have a gritty texture; making a meringue by hand is tiresome so use a mixer.

Let’s start the New Year out with a fresh pie from the kitchen. Yum!