Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Passover (Gluten-Free!) Lime Pie

[Up-front note: The photos in this post were taken by my sister, Elisheva Ackerson, using my very old and pathetic camera (unless she's in them. Then it's all me). Lucky for me, she's a professional photographer, so she knew how to make my camera produce good pictures. You should see what she does with a high-quality camera. If you're in the Baltimore metro area this summer and want a photographer, get in touch with me and I'll pass on your contact info.]

Recently, I spent the Jewish holiday of Passover with my family in my hometown of Baltimore. It's always an interesting experience to cook or bake in my parents' home. My mother was diagnosed with celiac about four years ago, so the family has to make an effort to keep food gluten-free whenever possible. For Passover, the practical upshot is that we don't use matzah meal in anything. For example, my mom's gluten-free Passover blondies rely on ground up walnuts as a binder - and are very, very good. I even expected to make a batch of those blondies over the holiday and use it as a blog post. But then, something great happened.

Just before the holiday, I came across a recipe on the Washington Post's website for a Passover Key lime pie that didn't use any matzah meal. I was ecstatic. The recipe looked straightforward, and aside from the limes, all the ingredients were ones I knew would be around the house. I forwarded it to my mother and sister with a message along the lines of "We are totally doing this!" My sister was just as excited. My mother...less so. She didn't have a problem with the recipe, but was less than convinced that I would have the time to do it. I also had to make sure it didn't interfere with the rest of the holiday cooking. "No problem," I said. "I'll make it on Sunday before the last days [of Passover]. There should be plenty of time." With a plan in place, and with my sister as a willing accomplice/sous-chef, I was looking forward to this pie.

Sunday morning, I wasn't feeling so great. A Passover diet can do that to you, and I had been on it for five days. Nevertheless, I resolved to get this pie done. My mother pointed out to me that Key limes were a seasonal fruit and it was unlikely that the local stores had any. She suggested I call up Trader Joe's first as it was the most likely candidate to have them in stock. One phone call later, and I was Shoppers to pick up regular limes as a substitute. No big deal. I returned home, woke up my sister, and started to get everything ready.

I ran into an equipment problem early on. My original plan was to make this pareve (a kosher term referring to food that is neither meat or dairy) and use pareve equipment. The recipe called for a double boiler setup for a custard (more on that later), but there was no pareve bowl to go with a pot in the house. After conferring with my mother, I went with dairy equipment. My sister came downstairs to the kitchen and I asked her to start making the crust while I started separating eggs. My sister melted the pareve margarine in a bowl and measured out the ground walnuts from a bag that we had in the freezer. I suspended my egg-breaking to put the brown sugar into the bowl while she mixed everything together then dumped it into an 8-inch square pan. We didn't have a pie pan available, so this was the next best thing. She pressed the crust down and along the sides then put it into the oven to blind-bake the crust. Meanwhile, I finished my egg separating and whisked in the sugar to combine.

The next step was handling the limes. The recipe needs 1 tablespoon of lime zest and 1/2 cup of lime juice. We didn't have a grater available, so my sister grabbed a peeler and peeled off chunks of lime peel. Then, she took a small cutting board and a knife and started to cut the peel into smaller pieces.

I started juicing limes into a separate bowl. Since we didn't have a juicer either, I juiced it by hand through my fingers, hoping to catch any pits. I rolled the limes on the table before I began to juice them in an attempt to release some more liquid, but that didn't help much. My mother suggested microwaving the limes first, and that helped a bit but not significantly. During the juicing, the timer for the crust went off, so I checked on it. The recipe says the crust should be "firm and set," so I poked it a bit with my finger. It didn't quite seem firm enough to me, so I called my mother over to have her take a look at it. She agreed with me, so I put it back in the oven and went back to juicing. Three minutes later, I pulled the crust out, poked it enough times to get a good feel for it, then put the pan on a cooling rack.

As I squeezed the limes, I kept pouring the juice from the bowl into a measuring cup and back again to see how many more limes I needed. On one such transfer, a lot of juice sloshed out, so I had to do an extra lime. Thankfully, it didn't take that much more time, and soon the zest and the juice were ready for action.

Here's where things started to get fun. The filling for the pie is essentially a stovetop custard. To make it, I had to set up a double boiler using a Pyrex bowl sitting on top of a small pot of "barely bubbling" water. In the past, I never had much success with a double boiler. Once, I used a double boiler to melt chocolate, but my candy thermometer fell into the bowl and became so covered with chocolate that it broke. The only thing that was keeping me in a better frame of mind this time was knowing I had family around to help out.

My sister set up the pot of water on medium heat, and I stood around watching it anxiously. You know the expression "a watched pot never boils?" It's true. The water took forever to reach a stage that I thought met the "barely bubbling" criteria. I put the Pyrex bowl containing the egg and sugar mixture on top of the pot and poured in the lime juice and zest.

Finally, I gave everything a good stir and prepared for an anxiety-filled 25 minutes. This was my first time making a stovetop custard, so I was nervous that it wouldn't work out. The recipe says to stir the custard from time to time but to be careful of overstirring. The end result is supposed to be a thick custard, but I only had a vague idea of what that meant. In my mind, a thick custard is similar to a pudding, but I suspected that would be too far for this recipe since it still had to cook in the oven. Six minutes into the cooking, my mother noted that it sounded like the water was boiling. I lifted the bowl out of the pot, and sure enough, the water was at a rapid boil. I dropped the temperature down to low and placed the bowl back on the pot.

Halfway through the cooking time, I gave the custard another stir. I futzed around with the bowl, tried to determine the current consistency of the custard, and generally fretted. I remarked to my mother, "You know what the problem is? I'm not a patient person." Needless to say, she agreed with me. I talked with her about my concern with this recipe and how worried I was that it would end badly. She told me a story about a lemon-meringue pie she made that ended badly (ants were involved). In general, I can accept a recipe that ends in failure. It's happened to me before, and I'm sure it will happen to me again. But the first time I make something, I want to come close to achieving the goal. With a custard, I know it's a fine line between a good custard and overcooked eggs. Furthermore, in making this pie, I was using up all the pareve margarine we had in the house and there was no plan to get more. If it failed, I wouldn't be able to make a second attempt.

Eventually, the 25 minutes elapsed and I gave the custard another check. I put the spatula in the bowl and let the custard run off to see how thick it had become. It wasn't quite there, so I gave it another five minutes. During that time, I cut margarine into pieces to be stirred into the custard when it came off the heat. When I checked the custard again, there were gelatinous pieces stuck to the edge of the spatula, but overall it was still rather thin. When I ran my finger across the middle of the spatula, custard ran down the line in a couple of places. I chose to play it safe and yanked the bowl off the pot. I put in the pieces of margarine and whisked until smooth.

Then, I poured the custard into the pan with the crust, making sure to reserve some. One of the guests coming over for dinner that night was allergic to walnuts, so I planned to cook some custard separately for her.

As I was pouring, my sister was trying to get pictures of me. This was fine until I saw that the custard was seeping through a crack in the crust near the top, so I got a bit frustrated with the picture taking. In the end, the pie (and I) looked like this just before it went into the oven.

I placed it in the oven and set the timer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, I poured the extra custard into six cupcake liners, each containing about 1/3 cup of custard. I put it in the oven for about eight minutes until the outer edges were set and the middle was still a bit soft. A little while later, I removed the pie from the oven. I think I let it cook too long because the middle was firm instead of "jiggly" as the recipe described. A few hours later, after the pie and the cups cooled, I covered them with foil and stuck them in the fridge until dinner. The recipe calls for a meringue topping for the pie, but I chose not to make it. Frankly, I didn't want to deal with it. I had other (non-food) things to take care of and not a lot of time to do it, so I skipped it.

When I served the pie at dinner, everyone liked it. My friend who couldn't eat nuts was very appreciative of the separate cups. Personally, I was surprised that the custard came out as well as it did. It was more spongy than smooth and creamy, but it still tasted really good. The lime came through clearly but not too strong. I thought the nut crust was a little too...walnut-y. I don't know what it was, but the nut flavor was just a bit off. Maybe using fine-ground walnuts was part of the problem. I'm not sure what I would do to correct it; maybe use a different nut or try grinding up whole walnuts. But overall, I would call it a success.

I'll leave the final verdict with my father. He said this as he was licking his spoon. "Hm...OK, I think we'll let you make it again." Thanks.

Finally, here are some additional photos my sister took. I'd be remiss if I didn't include them.

Below is the recipe without the meringue topping, since I didn't make it. Follow the link to find directions on how to make it.
Passover Key Lime Pie (Adapted from The Washington Post's recipe adaptation from Paula Shoyer's "The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-Free Recipes From Traditional to Trendy")


4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) pareve margarine (contains neither meat nor dairy products)
3 1/2 to 4 cups walnuts, ground to yield 2 cups
3 tablespoons light brown sugar


5 large eggs, plus 3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup of lime juice and 1 tablespoon of lime zest (the original recipe calls for 14 Key limes or 4-5 regular limes. I ended up needing 6 limes for the juice.)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) pareve margarine, cut into small pieces
1 drop natural green food coloring (optional, I left it out)

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place an 8-inch deep-dish pie plate or 9-inch pie plate on a baking sheet.

2) Place the margarine in a medium microwave-safe bowl and heat on HIGH for 45 seconds or until melted. Stir in the walnuts and brown sugar; mix until combined.

3) Transfer to the pie plate and press to cover the bottom and about 1 inch up the sides. Bake for 15 minutes so the crust is firm and set.

4) Transfer to a wire rack to cool; leave the oven on.

5) Combine the eggs, yolks and sugar in a heatproof bowl

6) Set the bowl over a medium saucepan filled with a few inches of barely bubbling water, over medium heat. Stir to combine the egg mixture, then pour in the lime zest and lime juice and stir to combine.

7) Cook uncovered for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a thick custard. Be patient and do not stir too much.

8) Remove from the heat. Whisk in the margarine in small pieces until the cream is smooth. Stir in the green food coloring, if using.

9) Pour the filling into the prepared crust, spreading it evenly. Bake (with the pie plate on the baking sheet) for 20 minutes (at 350 degrees) or until the outside edges of the filling are set; the inside can remain a little jiggly.

10) Let cool, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What I Learned From Carrot Cake

On Sunday, for reasons that I still don't know, I had the sudden urge to make a carrot cake from my America's Test Kitchen cookbook. I really can't explain it. I had a pound of carrots in my fridge that were originally earmarked for a stew or maybe some mirepoix. But no, they were going into a cake. Once I had the idea, I was committed. And in making the cake, I learned some things along the way, as you'll soon see.

The first step of making a carrot cake is grating the carrots. But I had one glaring problem. I didn't have a grater available. "But wait," I can hear you say, "what about a food processor?" Yeah, I don't have one of those either. So I had to figure out a way to get all my carrots (pictured below) into manageable pieces. Suddenly, it hit me. I could use a vegetable peeler! The end result wouldn't be as good, since the pieces would be larger than the "strands" produced by a grater, but it would work reasonably well. Right?

Well, there was only one way to find out. I started peeling my carrots. And peeled. And peeled. And started to get angry at my carrots. And then started to get angry with myself for stupidly trying to peel this many carrots. (As as you can see below, there were a lot of carrots.) I nearly peeled off a finger as carrots slipped from my hands. Eventually, I pulled out the cutting board and my knife and started to cut the carrots into pieces after once I couldn't peel them anymore. After what seemed like an eternity, not to mention very orange hands, I was able to get through all of the carrots.

The carrots before I cut them.
The carrots afterwards.

From there, I proceded to combine the dry goods in a bowl. I mixed my flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves together. Here's where I made a bit of a mistake. The recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder. After portioning my flour, I accidentally put in 1 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. I realized my mistake quickly, and tried to scoop out some of the baking soda with a 1/4 teaspoon measure. I don't think I was quite so successful, but I wasn't going to throw out the whole mix just because of it.

Next came the beginning of the batter. I put my eggs, brown sugar, and white sugar into my stand mixer and started it up. According to the recipe, the idea here was to whip air into the eggs to make it fluffier, which sounded fine in principle. I ran the mixer until it was creamy, then started to add oil. The intent was to make an emulsion of the oil and the egg/sugar mixture. Unfortunately, it didn't quite succeed. There was a ring of oil around the top of the batter, and no matter how long I ran the mixer, it wouldn't emulsify.

I resigned myself to my fate and started to incorporate the dry ingredients. The instructions said to do it in two batches and to whisk by hand. I started to do this, but quickly realized that the batter was getting thick and clumpy, making whisking difficult. I moved the batter back to the stand mixer, put on the whisk attachment, and kept it running. As I added the second half of the dry ingredients, the batter got drier and drier until it resembled more of a dough than a batter.

This led to an interesting time when I had to incorporate the carrots. The recipe says to "gently stir in the carrots." But the dough was so thick, there was nothing gentle about it. I had to push the carrots in forcefully with my spatula, hoping to make as even a mixture as possible. I thought adding in a little bit more oil might help loosen it, but it didn't help much. I was stuck with a clumpy, somewhat dry mixture that had carrots in there somewhere.

Then I had the challenge of putting the dough into pans. The recipe called for a 13 x 9 pan, which I didn't have around. I instead opted for 2 8x8 pans, attempting to divide the "batter" equally between them. This took quite a bit of effort as I had to scoop it out with my spatula instead of "pouring" it out as the recipe suggested. This resulted in the pans below.

I put them in the oven for 25 minutes, 10 minutes less than the original recipe called for. I wanted to make sure that the different pan sizes wouldn't result in an accidental overcooking. I rotated the pans a few times, reset the timer over and over, and after a total baking time of about 40 minutes, I pulled out the carrot cakes that you see at the top of this post.

I was supposed to wait two hours before removing the cakes from the pans, but I just couldn't wait. After an hour, I cut a piece of the cake and ate it. To my surprise, despite all the problems I had while making it, the cake tasted really good! The pieces of carrot were slightly larger than I would have liked, but it looked like the peeler did a reasonably good job. I ate about 1/5 of a pan of cake that night. I put the second cake into the freezer once it had cooled completely, and put the first cake into a Ziploc bag. I went to sleep that night thinking I had a success on my hands.

But this isn't the end of the story.

The next day, as I was eating my lunch, I grabbed a piece of my carrot cake to have for dessert. I bit into it, expecting to be rewarded with a sweet, carroty experience. What I got instead was an incredibly saccharine aftertaste in my mouth that I hadn't noticed the day before. Thinking it was maybe an isolated piece of the cake, I had another piece. The same aftertaste lingered in my mouth, and there was nothing I could do to get it out. My success had now fizzled into a food that left a bad taste in my mouth for hours.

I don' t know what caused the change in taste from Sunday to Monday. Maybe it had been there all along, but my desire for carrot cake on Sunday overrode it. Maybe the moisture in the Ziploc bag had caused the sugar to crystalize again. Maybe the slightly warm cake masked some of the intensity of the sugar. Or maybe it was supposed to taste that way, but without the cream cheese frosting that was supposed to accompany it, the sugariness couldn't be cut.

Whatever the reason, it taught me an important lesson, especially when applied to cooking large batches of things for myself: Before calling something a success, make sure it still tastes good the next day.

I tend to make large quantities of food because often, reducing the recipe is more hassle than it's worth. This usually results in me eating most of the food myself. I'm the only one in my apartment who can eat most of my baked goods because my roommate doesn't eat gluten. I can give friends of mine some of it, but not always. So if I'm going to have an entire cake to eat alone, it had better taste good for a couple of days after I make it. Otherwise, it's a bit of a waste.

Oh, and what did I do with the rest of the carrot cake? I ate it. Sure, it sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth, but I eventually dealt with that by over-spicing my dinner on Monday night. But that's a story for another time.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Girl Scout Thin Mints, Take 1

There is one dessert flavor combination that ranks above all else: chocolate and mint. There's something about sharp mint flavor cutting through rich chocolate that hits just the right spot.

Chocolate minty goodness has held a special place in my heart for a long time. My favorite candy for a long time was York peppermint patties. When I went to the UK for a trip in '09, I brought back a ton of after-dinner mints because I thought they were the coolest thing ever. In college, I became renowned for my chocolate peppermint cake (a recipe I am sure will turn up on this blog in the future).

Of course, there is one product out there that strikes the perfect balance of flavor and texture. I am talking, of course, of the Girl Scout Thin Mints. They are the quintessential cookie for diehard chocolate-mint aficionados. Whenever the Scouts have their annual sale of cookies, boxes of thin mints are quickly seized by crazed fans of the delights, hoarding as many as they can until the next sale begins.

Seeking to avoid such…well, insanity, I decided to try my hand at making my own Girl Scout Thin Mints. It's a recipe that sat in my list of links for a long time, but it took a while to get my act together to actually make them. What finally did it?

Frankly, the opportunity to mock a friend of mine. One of my friends and followers on Twitter, @KatieHall, loves to talk about how many boxes of Girl Scout cookies she has in her house. Not one to let an chance to tease a friend slide, I told her that I would be making thin mints of my own to have any time I wanted. I vaguely recall describing how I'd be laughing at her as I devoured my own creations. Her response was…unimpressed to say the least. Undeterred, I started on my thin mints. Unfortunately, I made a number of mistakes in the process.

Mistakes number one and two involved creaming the butter and sugar. If you recall from my previous post, I try to avoid recipes that call for creaming because I lack a mixer I can use for dairy ingredients. But a thought occurred to me: Why not use the 2-cup capacity food processor I own? Since my recipe calls for 1/2 cup of butter and 1 cup of sugar, it should totally work, right?

No. It did not. A small food processor really doesn't want to throw sugar into butter at a high speed. What it does want to do is smoosh (yes, that is a technical term) the butter into a clump that may has a dusting of sugar on it, but leave the rest of the sugar lying on the bottom of the bowl. Not helping matters was the other mistake: the butter was way too soft. I had pulled it out of the fridge a good four hours before starting to process it. This meant that instead of a slightly softened stick, I had nearly melted mush. In an attempt to "save" the butter/sugar mix, I dumped it into a bowl and stirred it up with a whisk for a bit in an attempt to incorporate the sugar. I then mixed in the milk, vanilla extract, and (most importantly) the peppermint extract.

A word here about milk in general. I am not a big milk drinker. Some of it is because I'm lactose intolerant, so drinking milk is a bit of pain since I have to take a Lactaid caplet with it. The other part, and probably the more important one, is that I just don't like plain milk. The texture and taste are just not that appealing to me. So when I have recipes that call for milk, I try to use soy milk when possible. This helps me avoid buying large quantities of milk that eventually get thrown out when they're not used beyond the immediate recipe.

But this week, I discovered my local Trader Joe's carries shelf-stable milk (like Parmalat) in individual 8 ounce boxes. This was great because I could have some milk on hand and I wouldn't waste milk when cooking, So it was one of these cartons of milk that I ended up using for the recipe. OK, side note over.

Butter, sugar, milk, and extracts combined, I started to stir in the combined dry ingredients. Here's mistake number three: Not learning from the last cookie adventure, I continued to try using a whisk to incorporate the dry and wet ingredients. Predictably, this didn't work so well. I did eventually abandon the whisk in favor of a plastic spoon I found in the kitchen. This helped, but not before I had put a fair amount of strain on my wrist.

After some time, the dough looked really dry and crumbly. I wasn't sure if I should add more liquid, so I tried to test out the dough by attempting to pack the dough into a cohesive mass and see if it would stick. It did, so I chose to press forward anyway. This may be another mistake, but I don't know for sure, so I'm leaving it out of the count. I portioned out the dough, put half onto some plastic wrap, and tried to shape it into a log. This led to mistake number four: trying to roll it into log within the not-well-sealed plastic wrap. In my attempts to roll the dough into the appropriate shape, I managed to push the dough off the counter and onto the floor.

Sighing, I threw it into the garbage and focused on the remainder of the dough. I managed to work it into a rough approximation of a log and tossed into the freezer as directed. A few hours later, I pulled out the dough and began cut the dough into disks to be baked. Mistake number five: I used a serrated knife to do the cutting, and that dough was hard as a rock. I tried sawing at it for a while, but that didn't produce the disks I wanted. My knife kept slipping and small shavings of dough would come off. Eventually, I just pressed down on the top of the knife blade to push it through the dough. DO NOT DO THIS EVER. It is incredibly unsafe, and even if you avoid cutting your hands, it still really hurts.

The end result of all this hacking and slashing were a series of disks that ranged in thickness from 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch. In other words, I was no longer making thin mints. I was making "thin" mints.

Still, it was too late to turn back now. I tossed the disks into the oven on my brand-new baking sheet and anxiously waited to see what would happen. The recipe noted that the cookies would not spread that much, and I'm grateful that note was included. These cookies didn't spread at all, and without that note, it's quite likely I would have started to quietly freak out that I had done something wrong.

Once the cookies were done, I pulled them from the oven and let them cool on my brand-new cooling rack. Yes, I just got a new cooling rack. Yes, it's the first cooling rack I've ever owned. Yes, I should have gotten one a long time ago. Can we move on now?

As the cookies cooled, I tried one. It was a crispy wafer, and I was relieved to note that the texture was right. The chocolate and peppermint were certainly there, but they weren't very strong. I held out hope that maybe the muted flavor was because the cookie was still warm and overpowered the ability to pick up on the flavor. I really, really hoped that's what it was.

An hour later, I began the coating process by melting down some butter and Trader Joe's chocolate chips in a saucepan. Using two forks, I placed each cookie into the saucepan and coated it with chocolate. Then, I lifted the cookie out of the pan and onto a piece of parchment paper to cool. I haven't done chocolate coating often, and when I have, I tend to overcoat. This was no exception. But I like a lot of chocolate, so that wasn't so much a mistake as an….overindulgence.

Once the cookies were all coated, I put a piece of wax paper on top of them and put them in the fridge to hasten the hardening process. 30 minutes later, I was crunching into a homemade "thin" mint cookie.

The end product was certainly tasty. The mint and chocolate were both there and much more in the forefront. I was nervous that the shelf-stable milk would leave a chalky taste in the cookie, but it turned out to be a false concern. I gave some to friends of mine and they all considered it a rousing success with little to no complaints. The most common was the thickness of the cookie, which I readily copped to.

So do I consider the recipe a success? Sort of. It produced a cookie that I and many others enjoyed, so on a basic level: Yes, I was successful. But there's so much more I could do to improve the recipe. I need to find a better way to cut the cookie, for one. I want to increase the peppermint flavor, too. I debated adding some peppermint extract to the chocolate coating, but decided not to in the end. I wanted to try and make the "baseline" cookie before messing around too much with it. Now that I have the baseline, I have ideas about what to do.

Until I improve this recipe, I'm not going to post the recipe in full below. If you want to read the recipe that I used, here's a link to it: Homemade Thin Mints. And if you've got suggestions on how to overcome some of the mistakes I made, leave a comment below. I'm happy to try out new things to improve my process.