Focus on One: Perfect Pumpkin Pie

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Happy November.  It has been a while since I have had the time to write anything.  The opening of school has been very hectic, and as the first marking period wound down, I realized that in addition to other things I didn’t do this fall because I was so busy with school work, I hadn’t written a blog entry in months.  Focus on one?  Writing blog entries again?  Well, it IS November, and Thanksgiving is a mere 12 days away, so Focus on One: making the perfect pumpkin pie.  For years, I worked on perfecting my pumpkin pie and I think that after all of this time, I have finally got it down.

There are two things that make a pumpkin pie really great: one is using a mix of fresh pumpkin and butternut squash puree and the other is the pie crust.  I will start with the crust.  Excellent pie crust results from very cold fat and not over mixing the dough.  How do you do that?  Make the crust mixture in advance and put it in the freezer.  I actually make batches of the crust mix and freeze it in plastic bags with 1 cup of mix in each bag.  And the trick to not over-rolling your dough is to use a pastry cloth and a pin sock and NEVER wash them.  “Yuck,” you say.  Store the pastry cloth and the pin sock in a freezer bag in the freezer.  It is like having a non-stick pastry cloth and I can roll out a very thin pie crust.  Another question is about the fat to use in the pie crust mix.  Traditionally, people used lard in pie crust because it creates a much flakier crust.  However, many people use butter because it has a better flavor, but the texture of the crust is more like shortbread than pie crust and it is difficult to roll thin.

In “Recycle Those Pumpkins,” I give instructions to bake-off your Jack-O-Lanterns.  You can use the same technique to bake off any type of squash, and store it in the same way.  I use the frozen puree in soups, casseroles, and custards.  The reason I like to use a combination of pumpkin and butternut squash for my pie custard is that the butternut adds a beautiful color to the finished product.  Also, if you are using Jack-o-lantern pumpkin instead of pie pumpkin, it will improve the flavor.  What is the difference between a pie pumpkin and a jack-o-lantern pumpkin?  J-O-L pumpkin seeds are chosen for hardiness and size.  Everyone wants a nice big pumpkin to carve, and one that won’t go soft and moldy in a day.  Pie pumpkins do not store as well because they have a higher sugar content, softer flesh, and a softer outer shell.  The nice thing about pie pumpkins is that they are available at local farmer’s markets right now, along with other great fall veggies.

Elements of the perfect pumpkin pie:

Pie Crust Mix Recipe:

In a large bowl, mix together:

  • 6 Cups All-Purpose flour
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

Cut in 1 pound of fat (lard, butter, shortening (not really recommended), or some combination of two or three) at room temperature until it makes pebbles.  Store in the freezer until ready to use.

Once the crust mix is frozen, you can use it.  For one crust pies, use 1 Cup of mix and add 3 Tablespoons of ice water.  Stir just until it all comes together.  For two crust pies, use 2 cups of the mix with 1/3 Cup ice water.

To roll out a pie crust, lightly flour a pastry cloth and a pin sleeve.  Make a ball out of the dough and squash it flat with your hand.  Roll the dough into a circle.  To transfer to the pie plat, fold it in quarters and slip the pie plate under the pie crust, then unfold it.  Give the crust a lot of slack and gently push it into the bottom edges of the pan.  If you tear it, just take some dough from the excess around the edges and patch it.  No one can see the bottom of the pie.  Just make sure to seal it up so the filling doesn’t leak through.

Pumpkin Custard

  • 11/2 Cups fresh pumpkin puree (if frozen defrost it first)
  • 1 1/2 Cups fresh butternut squash puree (if frozen defrost it first)
  • 3/4 C sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F (200° C) and cover a baking sheet with foil.  Place the unfilled pie crust on the baking sheet and set aside.
  2. In a sauce pan with high sides, mix the pumpkin and butternut squash purees.  Put this over a medium-high heat. and cook for about 20-25 minutes, stirring frequently, until most of the water has cooked off of the puree.  Do not rush this step, as too much water in the puree will affect the overall consistency and flavor of the custard.
  3. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Add the milk and cream and beat together.
  4. Once the puree has gotten really thick, remove it from the heat and stir in the dry ingredients.  Make sure they are well combined.
  5. Add the egg-milk mixture and stir until it is all incorporated.
  6. Fill (but do not overfill) the pie crust.  If there is extra custard, you can bake it in a greased ramekin.
  7. Bake for 40 – 50 minutes, or until set.  Check the pie after 30 minutes.  If the crust is getting too brown, cover the edges only with foil.

This custard also makes great ice-cream.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for your continued support on this blog!

Who Grew Your Food: Specca Farm

There is this farm stand on Rt. 206, on the Southbound side and anyone who lives south of the Columbus Market, or uses Rt. 206 to and from the shore, know it: The Corn Stop.  It has been there as long as I can remember. Last weekend, I was teaching a class and needed some peaches for a recipe I was making, so I went there so I could at least get something local.  The woman behind the counter was wearing a Specca Farm shirt so asked where the farm was and when she told me, I remembered why I knew the name.  Many years ago, I took my children strawberry picking there.  They are located just outside of Mt. Holly, NJ and grow very fine produce.

Later in the week, I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa Specca about the farm.  Her husband’s grandfather, Romeo Specca came from Italy after World War I and started work in this country as a gardener.  After some time, he was able to purchase some land in Philadelphia (where Franklin Mills Mall is today!) and begin his farming career.  In 1958, when his property was purchased to make way for the great new North-South Interstate 95, he purchased land in Burlington County, New Jersey, and founded the Specca Farm we know today.  His son David continued the farm and passed it on to his son, David (that’s David II), who runs the farm with his wife Lisa and their children, David (that’s III) and Steven.

The farm began as many in NJ, as a truck farm, taking produce into Philadelphia markets.  David I began the “U-Pick” as a side business that gained popularity over the decades.  They are not open all summer.  The crops they grow for U-Pick are not harvested all summer, so for example, right now, in July, they are closed.  In the early spring they open for a variety of greens, including Broccoli Rabe, of which they have four varieties, each with its own fan-base.  Later in the Spring they have strawberries.

They open again in late summer, mid-August, which is really when the harvest in New Jersey kicks into high gear.  Tomatoes and cucumbers are peaking, okra and green beans are plentiful.  And they stay open until Christmas allowing for the wonderful fall vegetables NJ has to offer, like cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower that all thrive in the cooler temperatures of autumn.

The farm is a conventional grower because they are not yet able to produce enough compost and manure to use as fertilizer in their fields.  They use an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that includes minimal spray, and only sprays that are labeled “Next Day Harvest”.  David II’s off-farm work at the Burlington County Eco-Complex keeps him well aware of the environmental issues facing our county and holds land stewardship as a high priority.

What does The Corn Stop have to do with any of this?  Well, when the previous owner retired, and the business became available, the Speccas decided to give retail a try.  Lisa is excited about the new opportunity.  The Corn Stop is not selling exclusively Specca Farm produce, but produce from a variety of sources in order to provide more variety in what they have to offer.  If it can be grown locally, and is in season right now, The Corn Stop has it.

If you want more information about the U-Pick, you can check out Specca Farms on Facebook.  Not into Facebook?  You can call them at 609/267-4445 and listen to a recording of what will be available for U-Pick.

Living La Vita Locale 7/12: Peaches

Ok, FINE! I’ll give Georgia THEIR peaches, because if you live in Georgia, and can get those gems tree-ripened, they are wonderful.  But in mid-July in New Jersey? It is all about the Jersey peach, especially white peaches that squirt juice all over when you bite them.  We like to pick peaches at the same orchard where we pick our apples, Strawberry Hill.  We bring home about a bushel of peaches and I can some, and lacto-ferment some, and dry some, and make fruit leather out of some.  And yes, we eat the rest of them: peach cobbler, yogurt with peaches, or even just a plain peach as a snack.  While I will buy “bump-and-dent” tomatoes to can into sauce (because sometimes I do not get enough tomatoes from my garden even with what is supplemented by the CSA share), I will not skimp on peaches.   They must be perfect specimens and perfectly ripe.

Peaches are number two on the list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods as defined by the Environmental Working Group.  Because they are fuzzy, peach skins retain much of the topical fungicides and pesticides that farmers spray on the fruit.  And because they are fuzzy, it is nearly impossible to get all of the chemicals washed off of the fruit.  And it is very difficult to grow a soft fruit that is susceptible to a plethora of pests and fungi without the use of chemicals.  That is why organic peaches are hard to come by. Additionally, with peaches being publicized as part of the “Dirty Dozen” more people are choosing organic over conventional.  This is why organic peaches are so expensive.

Of course I went in search of a local organic orchard!  Did I find one?  Yes.  But they did not grown peaches.  As a matter of fact, I could not find one local organic peach.  Not one.  The organic orchard I found only grew organic apples — the soft fruit orchards were on another property they owned about a mile down the road, and were not organic.  They, like Strawberry Hill, use IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that minimizes the use of chemicals.  They do not use antibiotics (Yes! There are some pesticides that are antibiotics!), they release lady bugs and parasitic wasps to manage insect pests, but they do have to spray sometimes. Usually fungicide, and usually when it has been very wet.  My advice is to call the orchard and ask questions.  Most farmers and orchardists will be very happy to talk to you — they will be surprised that you are interested.  So while Strawberry Hill is a conventional orchard, I still buy fruit there because I feel that their practices are environmentally sound.

The absolute easiest thing to do with peaches is to lacto-ferment them.  Lacto-fermenting fruit can be a little tricky because the ferment can go “boozy” very quickly.  This is one I check about every 12 hours.  As soon as you feel a little effervescence on your tongue, it is time for this to go into the fridge!

Lacto-Fermented Peaches

2-3 ripe peaches, peeled and cut into chunks catching as much juice as possible

1/2 C fresh berries (blackberries and blueberries are usually coming in around the same time as the peaches)

1/4 C cilantro leaves

1 T salt

In a scrupulously clean quart jar, combine all of the ingredients.  Secure the lid and shake the jar until all of the ingredients are combined and the peaches and berries are broken up.  Leave this on your counter for 1-2 days, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  This needs to be stored in the refrigerator, below 42° F.

This is delicious as is, or mixed with fresh chopped tomatoes and sweet onions as a salsa, spooned over grilled fish or chicken, or blended with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil for salad dressing.

Not a fan of cilantro? Try some basil instead.  Don’t have blackberries?  Use strawberries.  This is just as wonderful without the berries.  If you want an amazing topping for ice-cream, leave out the herbs!  Have fun experimenting.  If you come up with a new combination, please share it in the Comments!

Who Grew Your Food?

Among the perks of going to a farmer’s market is actually getting to speak to the person who grew your food. I talk about this all of the time in different ways. In class, when I am teaching the Politics of Food unit, we discuss the concept of “eating lower on the commodity chain;” in my Lacto-Fermentation classes, I talk about using fresh ingredients, about knowing when items were harvested; with my peers and I talk about food safety and how knowing and respecting the people who are producing our food will make it safer. My neighbor asked how I became so knowledgeable about food production – I am an ENGLISH teacher, not a Biology teacher, nor Environmental Science teacher, nor a Horticulture teacher. I learned by asking questions of the farmers who produce my food. Sometimes I take this for granted – that I have this direct access, but you don’t have to belong to a CSA or buy a half a steer once a year to have this kind of contact. If you choose to buy your produce at one of the many farmer’s markets that are springing up all over our area, you can ask questions of the farmers – the men and women who are on the other side of the table.

As I have said before, the farmers I know are among the smartest people with whom I am acquainted. Before they were farmers, or in addition to farming, they earned degrees in English, Neuro-science, History, Bio-chemistry, Social Work, and Education; they were college professors, lab techs, nurses, Elementary School principals, and teachers. I know only one who knew he always wanted to be a farmer. All of the others came to farming for a myriad of reasons, none of which is any less fascinating than the rest.

This week at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market, I met my friend Laura who introduced me to her farmer friends, Barry and Carol Savoie from Savoie Organic Farm in Williamstown, NJ. On Saturday, among other produce, the Savoies had beautiful garlic, and I had the opportunity to “talk garlic” with Barry. The variety this week was White German Extra Hardy, a variety I haven’t had since my visit to Ecosophy Farm in Woodward, PA. Due to the massive individual cloves, this garlic is especially good to roast because it can stay on the heat longer without drying out which allows for the flavors to really develop. You know how Silver Queen corn gets really sweet when you roast it?  This garlic is the Silver Queen of garlic.

I learned that the Savoies both wandered a bit, but came back to New Jersey to settle down on land owned by Carol’s father. They went through the arduous process of attaining Organic certification, which is quite a task for any farm, but especially a small farm. For Barry, this isn’t just about certification and the Organic moniker – he believes in treating his land well in order to be a good steward of the environment. While they do not have on-farm sales, these busy farmers have three different CSA options, and make produce available at three markets: Collingswood, Headhouse in Philadelphia, and Ocean City.

Roasted Garlic

If we are planning a meal that is going to be on the grill for a while, we will plan to roast some garlic to have on hand.  It keeps for about two weeks in the fridge, although we generally use it up much faster that that.

  1. Brush the head of garlic to remove any dirt that might be clinging to it.  DO NOT WASH IT!
  2. Wrap the entire head in foil.
  3. Place the wrapped head of garlic on the back of the grill as soon as you can. If you use a charcoal grill, put it on when you put the grill grates on and just leave it there, even after you are done grilling, with the lid down, until your coals have burned down.  If you use a gas grill, the garlic should be on the heat for at least an hour (medium heat), but more is better.  Just be sure the foil packet is not directly over the flames.

To use it, just squeeze out a clove and spread it on bruschetta, or mash it and add it to salad dressing, or mix it with butter to spread on that roasted Silver Queen corn!

Living La Vita Locale 7/1: Kirby Cucumbers

What’s new at the market this week? Kirby cucumbers (aka “Picklers”). And when I see little those little gems, I gear up to make pickles, especially a family favorite Kosher Dill.

I’ve already done a post about making garlic pickles that are lacto-fermented and taste like the pickles you get at the deli. In this post, I will talk about pickle-making in general and then give a recipe for a classic Kosher dill, similar in style to what you would get at the grocery store, only better because you made it yourself from ingredients you can pronounce.  It was a Blue Ribbon Winner at the Burlington County Farm Fair a few years back.

Some general hints:

  • Unless you pick the cucumbers yourself, you won’t know how long they have been off the vine. Therefore you should soak the cukes in an ice water bath for at least two hours or overnight in the fridge. This will revive them and lead to a crisper end result.
  • The use of a grape leaf or horseradish leaf is optional. If you are using them, they should be as fresh as possible. The leaves are high in tannins and also work to help improve the crispness of your end result.
  • Smaller cucumbers will result in crisper pickles.
  • Keeping the cucumbers whole will result in a crisper pickle. You can cut them into spears or rounds just before serving. Cutting the cucumbers and then pickling them usually results in a mushy pickle.
  • Do not substitute the long slicing cucumbers for the small picklers. They have less dense flesh and will not hold up to pickling.

 

Kosher Dills

About 10 small pickling cucumbers

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and pierced

Dill fronds, Dill heads (the flowers), or dill seed

Black peppercorns

5 C water

1 C white vinegar

1/3 C salt

 

  1. Boil the water, vinegar and salt for 5 minutes.
  2. Pack clean quarts jars by putting in a grape or horseradish leaf in the bottom along with the garlic clove and dill (you can use a combination if you want. If you are using seeds, about ¼ t per jar). Add the cucumbers, fitting in as many as you can without bruising the cukes on their way in. Pour hot brine over the cucumbers being sure to leave adequate head space. Add a little more dill on top if you are using fronds or heads. Put the lids on and process by hot water bath for 15 minutes.

BE SURE TO FOLLOW MANUFACTURER’S INSTRUCTIONS FOR JARS AND LIDS!