Sunday, October 23, 2011

Peace of Pie

Well, after a very rough last few weeks, I am finally home for a much-needed fall break.  Things have been far from easy for me.  Between grad school applications, exams, presentations, research projects, TAing, juggling a social life, my Zumba® class, lots of volunteer work, maintaining a long-distance military relationship, and some unfortunate medical issues, I am spent.
A gorgeous drive home to set the tone for a beautiful break
For those of you that have not yet heard, I was informed this week that I have some pre-cancerous cells in my body.  It is NOT CANCER at this point, so I consider this good news.  I was, however, cautioned that I need to start paying better attention to my body.  I need to start eating healthier, exercising more, getting more sleep, and keeping away from stress.  I feel like I do OK on the eating healthily and sleeping parts, but my schedule doesn't really allow for a lot of extra exercise, and certainly doesn't permit breaks from stress.  But I am determined to change this.

The reason I created this blog was to document how I use baking as therapy to de-stress my life, and how I create beautiful things that spread happiness to those around me.  This morning I decided to bake an apple pie for my grandfather and I was reminded of why I fell in love with baking in the first place.  I was at home, in my own kitchen, with the lights off, listening to the sound of the creek and breathing in the fall air.  I moved slowly, finally going through a recipe at my own pace, not rushing against a clock so I can get my homework done or make it to a meeting on time.  Today I was in the kitchen with my thoughts and my pie, and the rest of the world seemed to fall away for a while.  I think I reached pie nirvana.

Even if you don't make this pie, I hope that you can take a few minutes out of your day to stop everything and just breathe.  Listen to your thoughts and be alone with yourself for a little while.  Take some time to appreciate your life and all the people in it.  And if you do have the extra time and some apples, then it can't hurt to make this pie while you're achieving your inner peace.

Chai Apple Pie
Adapted from Betty Crocker's 2-crust, 9" apple pie recipe
2 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup plus 2 Tbs vegetable shortening
1/2 tsp salt
4-5 Tbs cold water

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs chai powder (you can definitely add more if you like more spice)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbs butter
5 cups peeled and sliced hand-picked apples (the firmer the apples, the better)

Crust Directions:
Crust ingredients
Put all crust ingredients in a bowl, starting out with 4 Tbs of water and adding a 5th of dough is too dry/crumbly
Cut the shortening into the flour (I love being home so I can use the pastry cutter!)
Mix the dough into a ball with your hands (mess avoidance is not an option)
Divide the dough into two separate halves
Roll out the dough until you have enough to line the bottom of a pie plate
Fold dough in half...
...then in half again to aid in transferring to the plate
Patch up any holes and trim excess off the edges

Filling Directions:
Whisk together all the dry ingredients
Peel and slice the apples, then mix them with the dry ingredients
Once apples are well-covered, pour them into your pie shell and dot with butter
Add your top crust, make slits, brush with melted butter, flute the edges and cover them with foil
Bake with foil for 30 minutes at 425°F, then remove foil for 15-20 minutes.  Remove from oven when crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling through the slits
Cool on a wire rack
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream for the full effect
I think eating this pie brought as much happiness to my life as making it did.  I only make pies in the seasons they belong in, and I've been waiting to make a traditional apple pie.  We made a few French apple pies this week in my baking group at the outpatient mental health clinic, but those had crumb topping and no ice cream.  This one was the real thing.

I normally feel a lot of pressure from my family to make pies "just like Gram," and I've been letting it stress me out.  Today, I decided that if I am going to bake for therapeutic reasons, I am going to bake my way, with the ingredients that make me happy.  If I am inspired by a package of chai powder on the counter, I am going to add it, just because I feel like it.  If my overly-critical family doesn't like them, they don't have to eat them.  This is my life, and I am finally going to take control of it.

Wishing everyone a peaceful fall pie season.
Love and cookies,

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Feeling Fall (Candy Corn Cookies)

The leaves are finally changing colors, and I've finally taken the time to take a deep breath and notice them.  This week has been a pretty intense roller-coaster ride for me emotionally, but each meaningful experience I had helped me to find a better grounding.  Sometimes I fall into a Wesleyan bubble and focus on nothing else but my school work.  I forget that I have friends to stay in touch with, a family that loves me, and a world to be a part of.  After stepping away from it all for a while and re-evaluating my priorities, I'm ready to tackle the next two weeks until Fall Break.

All this talk of fall and the leaves changing has me in a very nostalgic mood for my favorite season.  I am in love with all things fall.  The apple cider, the leaf piles, the homemade donuts, the Halloween costumes, apple picking, and yes, I must admit, even the candy.  I decided to make the boyfriend a fall-themed treat for when he gets back from his army class (ON THURSDAY!!), so, feeling a little adventurous after my last baking-with-candy adventure, I was ready to tackle another challenge: candy corn cookies! 

Candy Corn Cookies
Recipe adapted from The Cookie Bible.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup unsalted butter (softened)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 8oz bag of candy corn (roughly chopped)

Whisk together flour, salt, and baking soda.  Set aside.
Cream together butter, sugars, and vanilla.  Add eggs one at a time until combined.
Roughly chop candy corn.  It WILL be a sticky mess, so make sure you have a sharp knife.
Slowly add flour to bowl, then fold in candy corn.
Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet (parchment paper is a MUST on these, unless you want to ruin your pans with orange and yellow goop)
Bake at 375°F for 9 minutes.  Let cool on pan for 5 minutes, then transfer pan to freezer for 5 minutes.  Remove carefully and allow to finish cooling completely on a wire rack.
The final product
All ready to go!
These definitely weren't my brightest idea, but I'm not sure they were my biggest baking failure, either.  I really didn't think the candy corn would melt as much as they did.  They ended up melting almost completely and turned into little pieces of yellow and orange stained glass.  Oh well, they still taste pretty wonderful.  I hope Dan and his friends like them.

If you are going to try these at home, I might suggest baking the cookie dough first, and then inserting the candy corns into the top for the last two minutes or so.  Hopefully all this baking with candy will give some of you ideas of what to do with all that Halloween candy you will be accumulating in the next few weeks...

Love and cookies,

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Whopping Surprise

The stress of exams and having too much to do all the time is finally kicking in.  I am feeling just a little overwhelmed, and am worried that my frequent stay-in-every-weekend-night-to-study habits are turning me into an old lady.  (Our downstairs neighbors think my housemate Ariel and I are the lamest people ever for asking them to turn the music down at 11pm on a Saturday night...)  I am feeling pretty overwhelmed with my school work.  I have a huge exam tomorrow night and am having a lot of trouble focusing.  I also just really miss Dan, (the boyfriend), who is off at some leadership class for the army, and I can't talk to him for 2 weeks.

Instead of studying, I do things like this.  I know, really effective use of my time, right?
Yes, a little baking therapy was definitely necessary this weekend.  Unfortunately, there were no birthdays, and the boyfriend is MIA, so I didn't know who to bake for.  I eventually decided to send a little love to another army boy, since I can't talk to or bake for my own.  When I sent Dan his first cookie care package to Germany, he shared the contents with his friends.  One of them was Ricky, one of his best friends.  Ricky actually liked my baking so much that he added me on Facebook and began to stalk my Dessert Portfolio.  Dan told me that while they were both in Germany, sometimes Ricky would say to him, "Dan!  Did you see those cookies Hannah just made?!"   I would have to say that it was thanks to Ricky's love of baked goods that Dan thought about me over the summer, which initiated us hanging out.  Now that Dan's back stateside, Ricky won't get to share Dan's care packages, so I think he deserves his own.

I didn't have a whole lot of time after my Zumba® class before my TA session, so my friend Dana came over to help me whip up something quickly.  We decided brownies were the fastest thing, since you only have to bake them in one batch (unlike cookies), and they are also shippable.  I didn't want to send him ordinary brownies, so I searched my cupboards and found some of the candy I'd stashed away to send to Dan in future care packages.  I'd never experimented baking with candy before, so I thought I'd give it a shot.  Without further ado, I present to you:

Whoppers Brownies
Recipe adapted from here.
1 1/3 cups butter, softened (I only had 1 cup, so I added 1/3 cup Crisco)
2 2/3 cups granulated sugar 
4 eggs 
3 tsps vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour 
1 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 box Whoppers 

One of my best friends and baking partner-in-crime
Chop Whoppers into halves and quarters
Cream together butter and sugar until smooth
Add eggs and vanilla, beat until smooth
In a separate bowl, whisk together dry ingredients
Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet until combined
Spoon batter into a well-greased or parchment-lined 9x13" pan
Sprinkle top liberally with Whoppers, then push them down slightly
Bake for 20 minutes at 350°F.  Cool in pan on wire rack.
These are so thick!
I must say, I'm becoming a huge fan of this whole parchment paper thing.  Look how nicely they came out of the pan!

I took them out of the pan to make sure they cooled completely, cut them into squares, and then carefully packed them into a plastic container.  Hopefully they won't arrive as stale brownie mush.  The trick to shipping food is to make sure that there is NO room for things to move around.  Movement makes crumbs.
Tightly packed in a hard, plastic container
Ta-Da!  First baking-with-candy adventure: success!
These have opened the door to a whole new realm of baking.  Baking the Whoppers actually gave them a toffee-like texture.  Stay tuned for more candy-laden kitchen experiments. 

I hope you enjoy them, Ricky!  Let me know how they are, and if they made it there in one piece!

Love and cookies,