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When Raspberries Happen

Sometimes, your office unexpectedly offers you freshly picked red raspberries. In that case, help yourself to a bag and be sure to taste a few of the juicy red drupelets to see how tart their summer sweetness is. If they aren’t too sweet, and you have some basil-flavored simple syrup handy, toss the berries in the syrup and let them sit a while. It’s cliche but they do burst freshly red on your tongue and remind you that summer isn’t just heat and sweat, it’s also ripeness and flavor and ruby sweetness tangy on your tongue. For example.

To balance that fresh ripe burst of berry, I wanted some cool vanilla cream, the dairy richness a smooth and velvety counter to the berry tartness. It also makes for a nice color contrast. Having no pudding on hand, I looked up vanilla sauces, and found the tip to start one off by making a slurry. Milk and cornstarch and home-made vanilla extract based on bourbon, and a few spoons of sugar. Heat and stir and stir and then watch it thicken. That’s how I made surprise pudding. Meaning, my sauce thickened into pudding, to my surprise.

Pudding is a happy thing. Spoon the heap of dark red raspberries in basil syrup into the bottom of a serving bowl or ramekin, then cover with the still slightly warm pudding mixture. See the red and soft yellow-white meld a bit. Restrain yourself, have some dinner, let the fridge cool things down. Then enjoy the lovely smooth, sweet vanilla pudding, its richness cut at the precise necessary moment by bursts of tart sweet fresh red berry. Summer says hi.

Small Victories

For a last-minute potluck, I decided to see if my pie crust three weeks ago was beginner’s luck. Arriving home after work, I chopped a scant pound of rhubarb and tossed the pieces with some sugar and vanilla extract. While the rhubarb drained in a colander over a bowl, I made the pie dough (8 oz flour by weight, 4 oz butter, 1 tbs sugar, 2 oz ice water). While the dough chilled for 15 minutes, I made a crumb topping using 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup flour plus 3 oz butter.

Once the dough was ready, I rolled it out, using wax paper per Alton Brown’s tip for handling dough. Getting the dough into the pie pan was a bit of a challenge but I managed it without incident. Then I added the rhubarb filling, sans the drained liquid which made a great mixer for seltzer water, and topped everything with the crumb topping.

Before you put your pie in the 375 degree oven, I would recommend covering the exposed crust with some foil to prevent over-baking. I forgot to do this and had to remedy the oversight with a very hot pie pan and rapidly darkening crust. Crimping aluminum foil around a hot pie pan is not something I recommend. The idea is to bake the pie with crust covered for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 20 – 3o minutes until the filling is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. Since I only added the foil after 25 minutes, I kept the rest of the baking time shorter – to about 15 minutes or so. This gave me just enough time to have the pie cool a bit before wrapping it up and taking it to the pot luck.

Even without the full baking time, this pie was a big hit at the pot luck. Of course, it was also the only dessert, but I don’t think that was the sole reason people were impressed to be offered a home-made pie. Only one tiny piece remained. I took it home as tangible proof of my baking success.

Facing the Pie Crust

Pastry makes me anxious. Well, not eating pastry; I have no problems with that part. My pastry-related fear revolves around making the dough. Baking, with its precise measurements and exhortations about correct temperatures, intimidates me. Which is why I took a class on breakfast baking – to face my fear and because things like waffles and quick bread seem less intimidating.

The biggest source of anxiety in the pastry/baking realm for me has been the pie crust. I’d love to toss off a nice pastry shell for quiche, or make a pot pie from scratch, including crust, but the instructions are scary, what with all the warnings about keeping the fats cold, not kneading the dough too much, etc.

Last Sunday, the first one in May, I finally just went for it. I browsed Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio in the bookstore, and tried to remember the 3-2-1 pie crust ratio he writes about. Since his recipe yields enough dough for a 9″ pie with cover, I halved his amounts because 1) I wasn’t shooting for a covered pie, and 2) 8 oz of flour looked like plenty of material to start with once it was in the bowl.

In all other respects I followed Ruhlman’s lead, trying to remember his description based only on what I gleaned from a quick browse in the store. I have to say, this pie crust turned out very well. Even after two days it is still delicious, it’s tender but has a nice crumble, and it is just sweet enough but not too sweet. I could eat this crust without any accompanying pie and be quite happy. This is,  for me, a real achievement, and had I created my mighty life list, then this would now be something I could cross off. Make pie crust – check.

The filling? Oh right, the filling. I went with rhubarb because it’s the season for it and I love rhubarb. No strawberries, just rhubarb, some sugar and a bit of vanilla. Yum.