May it Please the Palate: Cooking Without Guests

By Nick Roumel

I trust you had a good Thanksgiving. Before that, when was the last time you had guests for dinner? I and American food writers want to know. We write these rhapsodic columns about your dinner parties, your guests, your potlucks ... I don't know about you, but tonight my 11 p.m. dinner was a few slabs of potato fried in olive oil. I just wanted to fill my belly before bed. And the last time I cooked for guests--outside of breakfast for my dad who was here for a recent football game? (Head scratching.)

Yet eat we must. And if you're like me, you don't want to eat fast food, but good food prepared at home. Enter Christopher Kimball, the founder of "Cooks Illustrated" magazine, and host of "America's Test Kitchen." Kimball, tall, thin, bespectacled and bow-tied, told New York Times magazine: "I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party. Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn't anything glamorous about it."

What you won't find from Kimball is the kind of spread featured, say, in the "Food and Wine" magazines I used to receive--dinners for 16 impossibly glamorous people, set on an outdoor table with crisp white linens and seasonal flowers, matching table ware, and prepared in a kitchen the size of an airport hangar.

"Cooking isn't creative, and it isn't easy," Kimball told the Times. "It's serous, and it's hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard."

The idea behind the magazine and show is to perfect everyday recipes, and make them dummy-proof for the home cook. The Times writer observed a multi-day, virtually scientific experiment in search of the perfect soft boiled egg, complete with x-rays, to pinpoint the exact location of the fibrous strands that anchor the yolk to the white.

Picking up a steak the other day, I eschewed my usual preparation for Kimball's fool-proof, meticulously timed pan-searing method, complete with splatter screen and blue cheese chive butter.

Kimball's idea of success is that anyone, regardless of experience or skills, will be able to competently or even expertly prepare a meal as long as they follow his direction to the letter.

Readers regularly thank Kimball for teaching them how to cook. Recipes veer off into the non-traditional or even unconventional. Watching America's Test Kitchen the other day, I shuddered as he recommended putting pecorino cheese between the layers of phyllo in Greek Spanakopita. The idea was to "glue" the pastry sheets together, which I'm sure will work, but my YiaYia wouldn't have done that any more than she would have added yogurt to the filling, as Kimball also recommended.

More oddly, Kimball's pie crust recipe (follows) uses vodka.

Kimball prides himself on his iconoclastic nature. During a blind tasting of Greek yogurts, when his guest said, "We're looking for the brand that doesn't have gums and stabilizers," Kimball made it a point to praise the one with the most such artificial ingredients as his favorite. The Times concludes that Kimball has "watched the arrival of California nouvelle and Asian fusion, the farm-to-table movement, Whole Foods and the gourmet supermarket, convenience-store sushi, the celebrity chef and the contemporary urban foodie cum blogger, and he has managed to ignore them all."

As if on cue, here comes the vodka pie crust. Kimball explains, "Since water bonds with flour to form gluten, too much of it makes a crust tough. ... Using vodka, which is 60 percent water, we got an easy-to-roll crust with less gluten and no alcohol flavor, because it evaporates in the oven." He admonishes, "Vodka is essential to the texture of the crust and imparts no flavor--do not substitute. This dough will be more supple than most standard pie doughs and will require more flour to roll out (up to 1/4 cup)."

Ingredients:

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (6 1/4 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon table salt

1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/4 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 2 pieces

2 tablespoons vodka, cold

2 tablespoons cold water

Instructions:

1. Process 3/4 cups flour, salt, and sugar together in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 10 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds with some very small pieces of butter remaining, but there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape down sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining 1/2 cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Flatten dough into 4-inch disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

3. Adjust oven rack to lowest position, place rimmed baking sheet on oven rack, and heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out on generously floured (up to 1/4 cup) work surface to 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Roll dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side. Working around circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave overhanging dough in place; refrigerate until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.

4. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch beyond lip of pie plate. Fold overhang under itself; folded edge should be flush with edge of pie plate. Flute dough or press the tines of a fork against dough to flatten it against rim of pie plate. Refrigerate dough-lined plate until firm, about 15 minutes.

5. Remove pie pan from refrigerator, line crust with foil, and fill with pie weights or pennies. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and weights, rotate plate, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes additional minutes until crust is golden brown and crisp.

Published: Thu, Nov 29, 2012

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