Thai Chicken and Spinach Soup

For my two-year blogiversary (no, that’s not really a word, in case you were wondering), I decided it would be fun to circle back around to where I started things two years ago – with Thai food. Lolly has been pestering me to make her a Thai soup with lots of coconut milk and bright, authentic Thai flavors, so this dish seemed to fit the bill. This is another interpretation of the traditional soup Tom Kha, which was featured some months ago in my earlier post A Pair of Thai Classics.  Same basic idea, but with the flavor profile heading off in a little different direction. Also, this version is much heartier and comes across more like a stew than a soup. I made this in a slow cooker over the space of about 6 hours, but you can get the same results in about half the time simmering on the stovetop.

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Here are your ingredients to satisfy 6-8 hungry souls:

  • 4 bone-in chicken breast halves (about 4-5 lb. total weight)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 qt. chicken broth
  • Zest one lime, and juice of 3 limes
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp. light brown sugar (packed)
  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
  • 12 oz. small white mushrooms
  • 3 cups (about 2 cans) coconut milk
  • 1 can (8 oz.) sliced bamboo shoots
  • 1 bag (5 oz.) baby spinach
  • ½ cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves
  • Chopped cilantro and scallions for garnish
  • Cooked jasmine rice for garnish (optional)

Season the chicken breasts with salt. In a large capacity slow cooker or stock pot, combine the chicken broth, lime zest and juice, fish sauce and brown sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Lay the chicken pieces breast side down in the liquid, and sprinkle with the peppers and mushrooms. The liquid should be enough to cover the breasts, or close to it anyway. In a slow cooker, cover and cook on low heat for about 4 hours, or on the stovetop simmer on low heat for about 2 hours.

When the chicken is cooked through, use a pair of tongs to pull it out of the broth and move it to your cutting board. The meat should pull easily off the bones. Using two forks, shred the chicken meat, then return it to the broth. Stir in the coconut milk, then add the bamboo shoots and spinach, pressing all the leaves down into the liquid. Put the cover back on and continue cooking on low heat for 1 to 1 ½ hour in the slow cooker, or about 30 minutes on the stovetop, until the spinach is tender.

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And with that, you’re finished. Serve it up with some fresh cilantro and scallions. If you like, put a scoop of cooked jasmine rice in the bottom of the bowl before ladling in the soup. This dish is hot, hearty, healthy and satisfying. It will definitely fill you up and warm you up on a cold New Year’s Day. We chowed down on it with a big happy grin, and I’m sure you will too. Until next time: Eat well, my friends.

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Fat Chicken – The Other Other White Meat

First of all, I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to all my dear readers, as I toast you with a glass of fine Glenlivet 18-year scotch while I write this humble missive.  Thanks for hanging around and reading my culinary ramblings for the past two years.

Okay, admit it – like us, you’re tired of always having turkey (or ham) for major holidays, but you don’t know what else would be a suitable substitute worthy of the occasion. I can cook a pretty mean turkey, but let’s face it, sometimes the same ole same ole gets a little … well … old.  So, what does our family do when this awful quandary presents itself?   We turn to fat chicken.  No, that’s not really the name of the dish, but it’s what we have been calling it for many years because that’s what you will be if you eat this recipe too often.  Lolly discovered it in a cookbook long ago, and it has been a family favorite ever since.

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Christmas in the Johnson household this year has been a modest affair – just me, Lolly and our 21-year-old son Alex gathered for a simple holiday dinner.  The fireplace is glowing, the ground outside is covered with snow (in Kentucky of all places!), and from our kitchen wafts the fragrant aroma of fat chicken.  Here is what you will need to make 4 servings:

  • 4 boneless chicken breast halves
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter
  • ½ cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp. dried basil leaves
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tbsp. fresh grated parmesan
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup dry white wine

Preheat your oven to 375. Melt the butter by whichever method is most convenient for you.  In a shallow dish (a pie plate works very well), mix the bread crumbs, basil, oregano, parmesan, garlic powder and salt.  Pound the chicken breasts to a uniform thickness of about ½ inch.  Dip them in the melted butter, then coat them in the bread crumb mixture and place them in a glass baking dish.  Keep the rest of your butter, as you will need it soon enough.

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Bake the chicken for about 45 minutes until it temps about 160. While that is in the oven, combine the reserved butter with the scallions, parsley and wine.  If the butter has begun to congeal, pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds and it will be right as rain. When the bake time is finished for the chicken, pull it out and pour the butter-wine-herb mixture over the top like so:

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Then it’s back into the oven for another 5-10 minutes to finish and, voila!  You have fat chicken ready to serve to your nearest and dearest.  Plate it up with whatever traditional sides you would otherwise serve on your feast day, and munch it down with big happy grins all around.  Until next time, a very Merry Christmas to all, and eat well, my friends!

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Classic Spaghetti Carbonara

Have you ever watched those shows about the mob and observed how many wiseguys and goodfellas tend to be a tad hefty in the waist? Today’s dish is a big part of the reason for that. Any true son of Italy has grown up on this incredibly simple but intensely flavorful pasta recipe. It’s a staple dish of every Italian grandma, and comes together faster than you can say “Bada bing.” Okay, maybe not quite that fast, but you get the idea. The only downside is that from a fat and cholesterol perspective it’s kind of a heart attack on a plate, so it’s not something that you want to eat every day.

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Here are your ingredients for 3-4 servings:

  • 1 lb. spaghetti (linguine also works well)
  • ½ lb. thick cut bacon
  • 3 eggs, well beaten
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup heavy cream (optional)
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Fresh chopped basil for garnish

Traditionally a carbonara sauce is made with guanciale rather than bacon, but that can be hard to find in most American markets. Pancetta is also a good option, but I find that regular old bacon lends a very nice smoky, salty flavor to the dish.

Cut the bacon into half-inch pieces and, in a very large deep skillet, cook it over medium heat to render the fat and brown the bacon to a nice crisp texture. While the bacon is frying, get your pasta boiling in some well salted water. While those are doing their thing, whisk the eggs thoroughly to ensure any curds are broken up, then crack LOTS of fresh black pepper into the eggs. Don’t be shy about it. The pepper is the backbone of this recipe’s flavor profile. The name carbonara translates roughly as “coal-burner” style, and comes from the way the pepper creates the appearance of little bits of soot throughout the sauce. So, just when you think you’ve given it enough pepper, guess again. Be bold. Give it a bit more, and maybe a bit more after that.

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When you’re done with the pepper, whisk the cream into the eggs. Most Italians would blanch at the thought of incorporating cream into a carbonara – the sauce is supposed to be made just from the eggs and cheese. However, this sauce is all about technique, and without the cream there is a very narrow margin between a creamy sauce and something resembling finely scrambled eggs on your pasta. The cream makes the latter much less likely to happen, and also adds a beautiful richness to the finished product.

 So, when the pasta and bacon are both done cooking, it’s time to put the sauce together. If you’re concerned about eating too much bacon fat, you can remove some of it from the skillet at this point, but don’t drain it entirely. Instead, you’ll want to keep most or all of the drippings in the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low, transfer the pasta directly from the cooking water, and stir it thoroughly to coat it with the fat and mix in the pieces of cooked bacon. Next, pour in the egg-pepper mixture and stir vigorously to cover the pasta. At this point you should see a creamy sauce forming. Next stir in the grated cheese along with about ¼ cup of the pasta water, again mixing vigorously to coat the pasta evenly.

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And with that you’re done. Plate it up, garnish with a little more cheese, pepper and some fresh basil and munch it down like a true goodfella. It will put a big happy grin on your face and an extra inch on your waistline. Until next time: Mangia, mangia, my friends!

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Persian Chicken and Walnut Stew

Occasionally as I explore the endless world of culinaria I come across some new ingredient that so piques my curiosity that I have to find a reason to use it for its own sake.  In this instance the ingredient was pomegranate molasses. I found it while browsing the Middle Eastern foods section at Jungle Jim’s International Market, which is the ultimately foodie mecca in the Cincinnati area.  Unable to resist the mystique of this very exotic sounding concoction, I scooped up a bottle to take home – where it spent the next several months in my pantry as I inevitably got distracted by a hundred other culinary enthusiasms in the weeks that followed.  At length I remembered it was there and found a good excuse to use it. Here was the result:

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Today’s dish is of Persian derivation, and goes by the traditional name of Fesenjan chicken stew.  It is extremely easy to put together, but requires at least a little patience due to the slow braising technique that produces fall-apart tender chicken and a bright, tangy sauce that will leave you wanting more.  Here are your ingredients to make 6-8 servings:

  • 3 cups walnuts
  • 2 oz. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 qt. chicken stock, simmering
  • 1 bottle (10 oz.) pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Sliced green onions for garnish
  • Cooked basmati rice

Start by preheating the oven to 350°.  Line a baking sheet with foil and spread out the walnuts in a single layer.  Roast them for about 10 minutes, then remove them from the oven to cool.  When they are fully cooled, use your food processor to finely chop them, and set them aside for now.  Turn your oven down to 300°.

For the main braise I would recommend a very large, deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid that can safely go into the oven.  I used a 6-quart size, which worked well, but you will need at least 4-quart capacity.  A Dutch oven is also a good option here.  If you have none of those in your kitchen, you can also transfer the food from your skillet to a suitably sized casserole dish.  I prefer to use the same cooking vessel for two reasons:  first, to make sure I’m not leaving behind any flavor; and second, to cut down on dirty dishes.

Start by heating half each of the oil and butter over medium heat.  Using half of the chicken in the first batch, sear the thighs for about 5-8 minutes on each side until lightly browned, then set them aside on a plate.  Add the remaining oil and butter, and sear off the remaining chicken.  Then, using the drippings still in the pan, sauté the onions until caramelized and tender, which should take about 10 minutes.  Don’t be shy about putting some nice rich color in them.

When the onions are finished browning, return the chicken to the skillet.  Deglaze with the hot chicken stock, making sure to scrape all the flavorful stuck-on bits from the bottom of the pan.  Let the stock come up to a boil, then back it down to a simmer, and stir in the walnuts, molasses, brown sugar and salt.  Cover the skillet and pop it into the oven to braise for 2 hours.

When that two hours is nearly over, prepare some basmati rice to serve as the bed underneath your stew.  The finished product will have a thick, rich, intensely flavorful sauce, and the rice will provide a perfect canvas on which to highlight it.  The final result will be brightly acidic, fruity, and subtly sweet, with a rustic, hearty texture and big tender chunks of chicken that literally fall apart at the slightest touch.  The last step is to garnish with the sliced green onions.  We gobbled this down with much enthusiasm, and big happy grins all around.  Pomegranate molasses?  My new best friend – until the next awesome thing catches my fancy. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Experimental Pasta Sauce #37

So Lolly and I were out and about this afternoon doing a little semi-holiday-related shopping (after spending yesterday intently avoiding all things Black Friday) when, not unexpectedly, the conversation turned to what to do about dinner. Immediately my mind went to that iconic scene from The Jungle Book, with the two vultures sitting on the tree branch asking each other back and forth: “What do you wanna do?” “I dunno, what do you wanna do?” “I dunno, what do you wanna do?” “I dunno …”  Et cetera ad infinitum.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Lolly told me straightaway that she wanted a pasta dish with a rich meaty sauce.  This is no small thing, mind you.  Lolly is a rabid anti-pastite.  She despises all things carb.  To hear her tell it, GMO wheat is a deep, dark government plot whose end goal is to turn us all into couch potatoes while causing all of our brains to melt out of our ears.  Okay, maybe that’s a teeny tiny exaggeration – but she is a personal trainer who tends to be more than a little picky about what she eats, and carbs in any form frequently draw sidelong glares from her.

Well, all that stuff aside, I decided to shoot for something in the neighborhood of a Bolognese sauce, but without the 3-4 hour cook time normally associated with that classic Italian ragu.  What I came up with, totally on the fly, off the top of my head, and by the seat of my pants – plus whatever other idiomatic expressions you can think of to depict a complete lack of planning – was the following heavy duty meat sauce, served over pappardelle.  You will need a food mill and food processor for this preparation.

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I made enough for 6-8 servings. Here’s what went into it:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, small dice
  • 1 rib celery, small dice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cans (15 oz.) fire roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 tsp. dried basil leaves
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
  • 2 lbs. ground beef
  • 4 oz. cubed pancetta
  • 1 can (2 oz.) anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 4 oz. full-bodied red wine
  • Grated parmesan and chopped basil for garnish

A couple quick notes on ingredients: for the ground beef I would suggest either an 85/15 ground round or a 90/10 ground sirloin, preferably angus if you can get it.  Ground chuck will have too much fat for this dish.  For the wine I would recommend something bold like a zinfandel or maybe a generous splash of the cabernet that I was drinking as I prepared this recipe.  Lastly, make sure you’re using good quality anchovies.  I used Cento brand for this dish, which are delicious enough to eat straight out of the can (I did munch a few of them that way while cooking) but Bellino is another personal fave.

Now, on to our cooking:  Heat the olive oil un a large skillet over medium flame, and sweat the onion, carrot and celery until tender.  Add the garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds.   Next add the tomatoes, broth, dried herbs, cayenne, salt and pepper, stir well and allow this mixture to cook for about 20 minutes to blend the flavors.  Pass the cooked sauce through a food mill using the coarsest blade you have, return it to the skillet, then stir in the tomato paste to thicken it.  Here’s what your sauce should look like after you finish milling it.  The carrots tend to be a little stubborn about going through, but persistence will pay off with a chunkier, richer sauce.  Continue to simmer your sauce on low heat.

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While your sauce is cooking, in a separate skillet, brown your ground beef until well cooked. Drain it thoroughly and set it aside. In the same skillet, cook the pancetta until the fat is rendered and it begins to brown. Drain it on paper towels, but reserve about 2 tbsp. of the melted fat.  Transfer the cooked beef and pancetta to a food processor, and pulse until the mixture is finely and evenly ground. Add the ground meat to your tomato sauce, along with the chopped anchovies, the reserved pancetta fat, and the red wine. Continue to cook for another 30 minutes or so, using that time to prep your pasta. This would work great with spaghetti or linguine but I just happened to have some pappardelle on hand, and that proved to be a fine choice as well.

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When it’s all done, plate it up with some fresh grated parmesan and chopped basil, some more of that rich, delicious cabernet, and you’re off to the proverbial races. We enjoyed this dish immensely, notwithstanding that I just pulled it out of my …. well, you know. In any event, I’m going to call this experiment a success. Give it a try and let me know what you think. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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My All-Time Favorite Guacamole

This post goes out to my dear friend and fellow home chef, Ron Burmeister, who showed me this method for making some stunningly delicious, garden fresh homemade guacamole with nothing but a chef’s knife, a cutting board and a spoon.

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I generally make one avocado’s worth of guacamole for every two people I plan to serve. Here are your proportions to scale for each avocado you use:

  • 1 avocado
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tbsp. minced red onion
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tsp. fresh lime juice
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • Small pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

Start by cutting the avocado in half lengthwise and removing the pit. Using the tip of your knife, carefully make a few cuts into the flesh of the avocado across and then down, and scoop it out on to your board with a tablespoon. Mince the garlic clove and then use the flat of your knife blade to mash it into a paste.

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Now combine all the ingredients and begin to roughly chop up the avocado, occasionally scooping and blending everything together, until it reaches the desired consistency. I like mine somewhere between chunky and creamy, like so:

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When you’re done, scoop the finished product into a serving bowl and voila!, you have some delicious, super fresh guacamole to enjoy as a dip or as an accompaniment to your favorite Mexican cuisine, in this case some chorizo tacos. We munched those bad dogs down with a big happy grin on our faces, and can’t wait to do it again. I hope you’ll enjoy this one as much as we do. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Pie Practice

Here I am again, coming off another long stretch of dereliction of my blog-posting duties. In my defense, the last month-plus has involved an extended vacation, complete with the indescribable joy of hurricane evacuation traffic (that’s sarcasm, in case you were wondering), followed by a lovely ten-day visit from my out-of-state daughter, and whirlwind efforts to get Lolly’s personal training business off the ground.  Here’s a link if you want to pay a quick visit.

Despite all that, I have been in the kitchen more than a few times.  Today, in fact, I had the privilege of teaching a class at Williams-Sonoma on pie-baking, which will be the subject of today’s missive.  In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must say that my bookish understanding of pies far outweighs my actual practical experience in pie-baking.   There’s a reason for that. You see, for the past 26 years I have been married to a diet and fitness nut.  Lolly tends to be (how can I say this diplomatically?) very “particular” about her diet.  She frequently informs me that the things I eat will make me fat, or cause me to die a thousand horrible deaths, or make my brain ooze out my ears in my old age.  As you might expect, I have gotten very good at ignoring her about all that.

Thus, you may be surprised to learn that, whatever her other dietary hang-ups, Lolly loves pie — but only as a theoretical construct.  She loves the idea of pie far more than the actual eating of pie.  She loves the acquisition of pie, whether home-made or store-bought, and she loves the presence of pie in our home.  Sometimes she may even deign to partake of a tiny slice of the devilish stuff.  But after just one solitary nibble, that pie is on its own. It falls to yours truly to undertake the herculean task of polishing off that bad puppy, to save it from a fate in the wastecan.  And then she wonders why I get fat.

I say all that to illustrate that I don’t do a lot of pie baking at home. So when the store manager asked me to do a class on from-scratch pies, I thought it wise to make a little practice run, particularly considering that they were providing a formula for the pie crust that deviated from conventional wisdom. You see, normally pie dough is tricky to work with at best, and normally must be kept very cold to achieve good results. That involves refrigerating the dough at least for a few hours before rolling it out to form the crust. Today’s method, however, dispenses with that heretofore indispensable practice, so you can understand why I might raise an eyebrow.

Nevertheless, it works.  Both at home and in today’s class I enjoyed great success with this pie method and wanted to pass it on to you.  This recipe is for apple pie, but obviously you can substitute any fruit filling you like.

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So here goes…

For the apple filling:

  • 4 lb. whole apples
  • ½ cup light brown sugar (firmly packed)
  • 6 tbsp. sugar
  • ¾ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

For the pie crust:

  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 8 oz. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • ½ cup ice water

And for the final assembly:

  • 2 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • Egg wash made of 1 egg and 1 tbsp. water, well beaten
  • 4 tsp. sugar

A few of the necessary tools:

  • Apple corer/slicer
  • Sharp kitchen knife
  • Dutch oven
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Pastry cutter
  • Rolling pin
  • Wax paper

When making a fruit pie there are three main stages: 1. Make and cool the filling; 2. Make the crust; and 3. Assemble and bake the pie.

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First, preheat your oven to 400, then let’s start with the apple filling. Peel the apples, then core and cut into the desired shape and size. Some folks like slices, others like hearty chunks of varying sizes, and still others prefer their filling cooked down to something closer to a jelly. Whatever floats your proverbial boat – it’s your pie, after all. Do whatever makes you happy.  The same thing goes for your choice of apples. I made one pie with a blend of fuji and gala, and two others with all honeycrisp.  All three were amazingly delicious.

In a Dutch oven combine your cut apples with all the other ingredients except the lemon juice.  Cover the pot and cook over medium flame until the apples reach the desired degree of tenderness, stirring occasionally.  The “textbook” says cook them al dente, but I like mine a bit softer than that.  Whatever your preference, as the apples are nearing the end of their cook time, remove the lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook uncovered for the last 5 minutes or so to let the sauce thicken a bit. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, and allow the filling to cool to room temperature, which will likely take a good hour or more.  Needless to say, the requirement for this cool down time can make it helpful to pre-make your filling before baking day and set it back so it’s cool and ready to go when you need it.

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Moving on now to the pie crust.  An essential principle to keep in mind when making your crust is this:  cold is your friend. That is because butter is a key component of the dough and you want to keep it from softening too much or even melting.  For example, when cutting the butter in to cubes, try to limit contact with your fingers to avoid softening the butter.  Also, in a pie crust we want to minimize gluten development, and keeping things cold is a good way to do that.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all the pie dough ingredients except the water. Using a pastry cutter, work the butter into the dry mixture, cutting and blending until the mixture reaches the consistency of a coarse meal. The larger chunks of uncut butter should be no larger than pea-sized. Don’t work it so much, however, that it becomes sandy in texture. You want some of those small chunks of butter to promote a flaky finished product. When you reach the desired consistency, add the water, spreading it out in the dough as much as possible, and stir it in with a fork until the dough begins to pull together.

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Now comes the fun part, rolling out the dough and getting it into the pie plate. In my experience, wax paper is your best friend for this step.  Lay a sheet of it on your work surface and turn the dough onto it. It will still be dry and loose, so use your hands to shape and compress it into a ball. Cut the ball in two pieces and set half aside for the moment – this batch makes both the top and bottom crusts, so we’ll work each one separately.  Lay another sheet of wax paper on top of the first ball, press it into a rough disk, then roll it with your rolling pin. Work from the center to the outer edges to form a circular shape at least 12 inches in diameter, and of an even thickness between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. Carefully peel off the top layer of wax paper, and use the bottom layer to lift the crust and center it in the pie plate. Make sure the crust is gently settled all the way into the bottom of the plate around the entire circumference. Using a sharp knife, cut away the excess dough overlapping the edge of plate, leaving enough just to reach below the lip.

Now repeat the rolling procedure with the top crust. However, after removing the top layer of wax paper, we’re going to cut some leaf-shaped vents in it, and reserve the leaves for a decorative touch. With that, it’s time for the final assembly of our pie.

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Into your crust-lined pie plate, pour your cooled fruit filling. It is extremely important that you not pour hot filling into your unbaked crust – this will unleash the hounds of doom in the form of a soggy, poorly formed bottom crust when it comes out of the oven. Next, sprinkle the remaining 2 tbsp. of cold butter cubes over the filling then lay the top crust over your pie, making sure it is properly centered. Again, use your knife to cut away the excess. When that is done, use your thumb and first two fingers to pinch up the edge of the crust, working all the way around. Brush the entire pie crust, including the edges, with the egg wash. Position the leaf cut-outs between the vent hole and brush them with the egg wash as well. Lastly, sprinkle the pie top evenly with the remaining sugar.

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With that, this bad boy is ready to go in the oven. It’s a good idea to put a foil-lined baking sheet beneath your pie plate to catch any drippings. Bake at 400 for about 45 minutes until the crust reaches a nice medium brown and the filling is bubbly. Remove your finished pie from the oven, and cool it on a rack for at least an hour before serving.

There you have it, yummy home-made apple pie without too much fuss or muss. The results, if I may say ever so modestly, were stupidly delicious and received rave reviews all around. Even Lolly had two – count ‘em, two! – pieces of my practice pie, and the ones that I baked at the store didn’t last long. Big happy grins all around. Give this method a try for yourself and let me know how it works for you. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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