Thursday, April 28, 2011

Signs of Spring: Rhubarb Custard Meringue Pie

 I adore rhubarb.

My rhubarb plants are coming along nicely outside in the garden.  I have a huge planter tipped upside down over one of the plants to force it (more on this soon), and it is going to be beautiful. In the meantime, I decided it was time to clean out the freezer - so I decided to thaw out the two remaining bags of rhubarb I froze last spring.

If you are lucky enough to have outdoor space, and fortunate enough to have your own rhubarb plants, freezing it for later is easy.  Simply pull the stems and discard the leaves, then was the stems, chop into 1" pieces and throw into freezer bags.  I had very little time last spring to process much of the rhubarb in the backyard, so instead, I have been able to enjoy it all winter.  Frozen rhubarb is easy to use in cobbler, pie, stewed or baked.  It is best to allow it to thaw completely if you are going to bake with it.

I let the rhubarb thaw in a colander placed over a large bowl to catch the all the juices as the rhubarb melts.  This is a combination of juice and water, but it is tasty to reserve for later use in jello, if mixed with other fruit juice.

I decided to make a recipe from one of my longtime favourite cookbooks, Classic Canadian Cooking, by Elizabeth Baird - Rhubarb Custard Meringue Pie.  If you ever see this book at a garage sale, I highly recommend you pick it up, as this book is out of print. I particularly like this book because it is organised according to the seasons, and has lovely menus for different occasions, and many recipes are based on historic or traditional Upper Canadian cooking.

While the rhubarb thawed, I prepared my pie crust.  You need only a bottom crust for this pie. Mix the rhubarb with the flour and sugar mixture. This recipe has a little bit of mace in it, which is a lovely, but unusual flavouring.  Separate your eggs, reserving the whites.  Whisk together yolks, cream and melted butter.   Spread the rhubarb mixture in the prepared pie crust.   Pour the egg mixture over top, and place pie in 450 degree oven.  Reduce heat to 350 after 10 minutes. Bake 35- 40 minutes, or until custard is set.

 While the pie is baking, whip the egg whites with vinegar and salt until they form stiff peaks.  Add sugar and vanilla. Elizabeth Baird's recipe uses three egg whites, but I only used two as to not have a leftover yolk (her meringue would be higher than mine). Spread meringue over pie.  Sprinkle with sugar and bake for another 4 minutes at 425 degrees until golden brown.

Et voila.  Allow to cool, and serve as soon as possible.  Meringue does not like to be kept waiting!  It gets weepy if you're late for dinner. 

Rhubarb Custard Pie, adapted from Classic Canadian Cooking: Menus for the Seasons, by Elizabeth Baird, published 1974 by James Lorimer & Company.

2 1/2 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup white sugar (I used about 3/4 cup)
2 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon mace
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup light cream or milk
1/4 melted butter

3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons white sugar (I used about 3 teaspoons)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon white sugar (to sprinkle on top of meringue)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Family Recipes: Part II

 In a second series of embroidered pieces containing family recipes, I used yet more recipes from my Grandma Blanche's recipe books.  Some of the recipes are odd; who would need a recipe for making cheese toast?  Here again, I translated all the marks on the page onto the cloth, all punctuation, underlines and page breaks, but I made each piece the size of a recipe card. Each recipe is then approximately life size.

With this second series, I embroidered the pieces on two layers of discharge silkscreen printed cotton organdy.  (Discharge being a printing paste containing a chemical that strips the colour from the cloth). Of course you can barely see the print on the pale yellow organdy.

My Grandma Jean was not a domestic doyenne, though she had five children and ran an efficient household.  She was much more interested in the outdoors and intellectual pursuits.  She prefered extremely simple cooking.  I remember once she had made Date Surprise Muffins - the surprise being, she said, "I was too lazy to chop the dates, so I poked a date into the middle of each muffin.  Be careful of the pits".  

However, she did have a small repertoire of famous baked goods - waffles, molasses cookies and square bales in particular.  See above her recipe for molasses cookies written in her perfect school teacher script.  These are a drop cookie, soft, cakey and chewy. Molasses was a favourite of my grandfather - he liked to put blackstrap on his oatmeal.


Grandma Jean liked to give imaginative names to different foods - perhaps a way of convincing my father, his two sisters and two brothers to eat their meals.  Cream of wheat was Snow Porridge, cornmeal porridge was Sun Porridge.  Square Bales were simply brown sugar oat squares, but living in the rural setting of our family farm, where hay and straw were taken off the fields every year, the name Square Bales  seems more romantic and appropriate. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cherry Tarts

Yesterday was a sunny, perfect, spring day.  I dried some washing on the clothes line for the first time, and put my little tomatoes and eggplants outside in the sun.  They'll now be going outside everyday.  I also put a large forcing pot over one of my rhubarb plants - more on that later.

Last night was a going away party for a friend and we had a potluck dinner.  Predictably, I usually bring dessert.  It was nice to have an excuse to make some fancy tarts.

Pie crust recipe written in the back of an old edition of the joy of cooking in my mother's handwriting.

Sometimes I use other pastry recipes - like pâte sucrée, pâte brisée or sourcream pastry, but usually I use Grandma Blanche's 'No Fail' pastry recipe.  I think it is pretty common pastry recipe, so perhaps it's your grandmother's recipe too.  Her recipe calls for 1 lb. of lard, but I use butter instead.  I have made the recipe successfully with lard as well, which makes for a much flakier pastry, or half lard and half butter.  I like butter pastry best.

This recipe makes enough for 2 generous two-crust pies. Start with your dry ingredients in a large bowl:
5 cups of all purpose flour
1 tablespoon of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon of salt (or use salted butter)
Mix with a fork.

Then add 1 lb. of  cold butter. You need to cut the butter into small (1cm) pieces with a sharp knife, and then cut it into the flour with a pastry blender. If you don't have a pastry blender, or if you want to save time, grate the butter into the flour with a cheese grater using the large holes.  This is a trick I picked up when I was working at a tea room where I had to make large quantities of pastry everyday.

If you grate the butter, you do not need to cut the butter into the flour with a pastry blender.  The pieces of butter are already small enough - just mix to incorporate with your hands.  You might want to break apart any large chunks, but leave the butter in pea-sized pieces.  The pieces of butter will melt when your pastry is baking, creating airholes and a flaky pastry.

It should look chunky like this.

Next, add your wet ingredients.  In a measuring cup, place:
1 beaten egg
1 tablespoon vinegar (or just a splodge, don't ask why, but the acidity helps balance the pastry)
1 cup cold water (if the weather is hot, you can add ice cubes to make it very cold)

Add the wet ingredients to the flour, but do not add it all at once.  Depending on the humidity of the air, you will need more or less liquid.  Use your hands to incorporate, adding just enough liquid to moisten the flour, but not as much liquid as to make the pastry sticky. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour. When it starts to come together, knead the pastry in the bowl to create a smooth dough.  The key is not to handle it too much, making the pastry tough.

Divide dough in half, or quarters with a knife and flatten into discs.  Wrap in wax paper and put it in the refrigerator to rest, and chill about 1 hour.

For these cherry tarts, I used 2 quart jars of the cherries I canned last summer.  To use fresh cherries, I would have to wait until July!  To use canned cherries, I strained off all the liquid (I'll save this an make jello - yum). To use frozen cherries, allow to thaw completely, and strain off liquid.

Since the canned cherries were already sweetened, I did not add sugar, but I added 6 tablespoons of flour per quart of fruit, and 1 teaspoon of almond extract. Mix well to coat fruit with flour.  The flour will help thicken the fruit juice. If the cherries were fresh or frozen, I would add approximately the same quantity of sugar as flour.

Next, I rolled out the dough and cut it into 4-inch rounds.  Then I fitted the rounds into 3-inch fluted tart tins and filled each tart shell with the cherry mixture. Since the tart tins I have are various sizes, some shallow, some deep, I eyeball the amount.  Some of the tins are really quite old - they belonged to my great grandmother - but they're excellent tins.  Better than new.

Then I cut out oak leaves to place on the top of each tart.  Any shaped pastry will do, or you could choose to put on a full top, like miniature pies, but that is much more fiddly.  I scored each leaf with a knife, to make them look pretty. 

Ready to go into the oven.  The cherries will plump up as they bake.  Canned cherries always look a little deflated.

Bake in a preheated oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes (this will crisp the pastry, allowing it to hold its shape).  Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake for another 20-25 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown, and fruit is beginning to bubble.

Once done, remove from oven.  Allow to cool slightly.  If you want to remove the tarts from their tins, it is easiest done while they are hot, but be careful not to burn yourself! (I have given myself severe fingertip burns from molten butter tart filling).  With the help of a butter knife, gently and ginerly, lift tarts from tins.  Cool on a rack.

I like to sprinkle them with a bit of white sugar. 

Share with friends, or eat every single tart yourself.  If you don't tell anyone, no one will know.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Family Recipes: Part I

This recipe for drop-cookies is from Grandma's neighbour, Mrs. Myrtle Allwell.
These embroideries are part of an on-going series of work based on my collection of recipes belonging to my grandmothers.  I have original recipe books from both my maternal grandmother and her mother, and copies and scans my aunt made me of my paternal grandmother, her mother, and mother-in-law.  Some are recipes I have made myself, or tasted as a child.  Others, I've never tried, but just like the sound of them, or not at all. 

These three embroideries are from Grandma Blanche's notebooks.  She traded recipes with friends and neighbours, and sometimes the name of the lady who gave the recipe is written on the page.  Some are written in Grandma's hand, others have been given in the hand-writing of the friend.  I love the scrawl of old handwriting, and it was important to me to translate the handwriting and punctuation exactly.  I embroidered the handwritten text onto pieces of old tea-towels and tablecloths.

In another series of embroidered pieces, Family Albums, I created portraits of family members I had never met, but only knew through photographs or stories told to me as child.  In one piece, I used my great-grandmother May's recipe for doughnuts as her portrait.  My mother remembers eating these delicious doughnuts. 

I have a scrap of paper on which May wrote the recipe in pencil. Someday I would like to try making these doughnuts, but Grandma's recipe does not provide any instructions - only ingredients, and even then, there is the vague direction for the amount of flour - "flour as for cookies".

More variations on the recipe series to follow.

Embroidered on a piece of an old apron with the pocket still attached.

Detail of my great-grandmother's signature. I love the holes and stains in the fabric.