August 24, 2012

A Challenge and a Pie

I love writing. But does anybody agree that writing itself is pretty fickle? There are times that are gut-wrenching and times that are ecstatic, times that are slow and times in which there aren't enough waking hours in the day to fit your thoughts on a page. Annie Dillard records her accounts of the writing life and the ideas that flow in and out of each other over the creation of a piece of literature. I think about Dillard a lot and her metaphors of nature that she uses to reconcile the mind with oft-fleeting ideas.

I have especially thought about Dillard while constantly making excuses of not writing as much this summer as I normally do. I don't take enough pictures; I don't have enough ideas; sometimes I just want to cook and enjoy it for myself rather than try to connect cooking with personal narratives. Sure - simple enjoyment, especially in a family setting, has its place. But I wanted to take the next several weeks to really challenge myself to produce; whether that production will be compelling or utterly useless remains to be seen, but there's nothing like trying.

So beginning on September 1, I am beginning a Fall Challenge on Magnolia Cooks. The Fall Challenge requires posts at least three times a week throughout the months of September and October. Not every post will have to feature photos or recipes, but every post will deal with food and ways of expressing food philosophy. The Fall Challenge will not only encourage lots of writing and enhanced food narratives but will also - I hope - invite my dear readers to respond with comments and content discussions.

I have another special reason for starting the Fall Challenge, and that is to make my dear readers aware of an outstanding charity event going on in my town. The GetHeeled 5K race on October 13, 2012 is THE charity event of the season. One hundred percent (that's 100%!) of fundraising efforts goes directly to the UNC Lineberger Pediatric Oncology and Hematology Clinic for Family Supportive Care. This center provides compassionate cancer care for children going through harsh and invasive treatments, as well as much-needed support for the patients' parents and siblings. A few weeks ago, I tagged along to a clinic party at the center, playing guitar, singing, and coloring with the families. What I discovered was a special need for recreational and emotional support for these most vulnerable of patients, support that the hospitals themselves often cannot offer. Think art and music therapy, reading sessions, movement classes, lunches - simple things that keep these kids feeling a sense of normalcy. I hope to spread the message of this need both within and outside of my community.

In the spirit of connecting food with life and community, I'll be talking a lot about the GetHeeled 5K throughout the Fall Challenge. These kinds of food narratives, when used within the context of social need, can be really powerful! So please do check out the GetHeeled 5K page and consider donating!

Without ignoring the very SPIRIT of Magnolia Cooks, I leave you this Friday with a heavenly key lime pie. Key lime pie (like writing) can be a fickle business. But this one - this one! - is so perfectly sweet and tart you'll never need another recipe. So many of my recipes come from Cook's Illustrated but I own that and honor it. This key lime pie is proof that sometimes these simple recipes are the best. Whip it up before a weekend summer trip and carry it off in a polka-dot pie carrier. It is the very essence of summer!

Key Lime Pie
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

Graham Cracker Crust
1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
5 T. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine ingredients until well mixed and press into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Bake for 8 minutes and let cool completely. 

4 teaspoons grated lime zest 
1/2 cup juice from zested limes
4 egg yolks
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk (I used fat free and it was super light and beautiful)

In a large nonreactive bowl, whisk zest and yolks together vigorously for about 2 minutes. Add condensed milk, then add juice. When fully combined, let filling sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Mixture should become thick like pudding.

Lower oven heat to 325 F. When crust is cool, pour in filling and bake about 15-16 minutes, until sides are set and center jiggles slightly. Cool completely at room temperature, or place in refrigerator for about 2 hours before serving.

Top with lightly sweetened whipped cream, beat into soft peaks and spread over the top of your pie. Get decorative with a pastry bag if you want, or leave it creamy and rustic. 

August 17, 2012

Tomato Salad on Herbed Dutch Oven Bread

This summer. It's been a little bit ridiculous. Full of little trips out to the Carolina sound, Virginia farm country, Maryland's Patuxent River, outdoor summer concerts, and very few weekends at home. It's fine like that but then you wake up and it's the middle of August. How did this happen? And what did I cook and eat in this time? Slow-cooked crock pot meals with rice, shredded chicken in lettuce wraps, countless sandwiches and bowls of ice cream. Now re-assessing summer eats in mid-August makes me tired of the summer heat and ready for those hints of fall air, college football Saturdays, apple butter cooking on the stove, and baking with cans of pumpkin. But it's only August. We still have a few long, hot days to savor, evening summer storms, patio dinners.

Here is one of those delightful suppers that really can't be duplicated to the full extent of its enjoyment in any season but summer. The idea came from an abundance of fresh red and yellow tomatoes, an afternoon free for bread baking, and a fastidious following of The Pioneer Woman. Plus, anyone who has ever baked bread in a Dutch oven understands my enthusiasm for this bread recipe. It bakes up so crusty and golden in those ceramic walls, and a generous splash of olive oil before baking gives this bread a buttery rich crust that you just can't duplicate with everyday sandwich bread. This bread is so special. I used chives and thyme but it would also be delicious with rosemary and some kind of nut-infused or basil olive oil.

For the tomato salad, I used farmer's market tomatoes and plenty of minced garlic. Lemon olive oil gives this salad a touch of brightness that I just love for summer. And yes, we did have this bread-and-tomato concoction with a couple of strips of bacon. But bacon or no, this is a gorgeous and fairly fancy supper that really can't go wrong. Celebrate these last few weeks of tomato season, pull out your Dutch oven, and start snipping those herbs because you need this meal in your life.

Herbed Dutch Oven Bread
Adapted from Ratio and The Pioneer Woman

4 cups bread flour
1 cup water, room temperature
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/4 cup (or more) chopped chives and thyme
2 teaspoons salt

Sprinkle yeast over water to activate the yeast and let stand for about 10 minutes. In a stand mixer, combine flour, salt, butter, herbs, and water/yeast mixture until all ingredients are combined. Using a dough hook, mix on medium-high for about 15 minutes, checking the dough's elasticity periodically. When you can break off a piece of dough and stretch it to translucency without tearing, the dough is ready to rise. Remove from mixer, knead a couple of times by hand, then place in a non-reactive bowl covered with plastic wrap to let rise for about 2 hours. 

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and sprinkle olive oil in a medium-sized Dutch oven. When dough has doubled in size, remove from bowl and knead gently to redistribute the yeast. Re-form into a ball and place in oiled pot. Cut a large X in the top of the dough and sprinkle with a little more olive oil and sea salt, if you want. 
Bake covered for 30 minutes then remove lid and bake for about 20 minutes more, until top is golden and super fragrant. You don't even have to let this bread cool before tucking into it. I served it immediately with the cold tomatoes and can't even explain the deliciousness.

Tomato Salad

1 pound tomatoes, any color, shape, or size
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon (or more) red pepper flakes
3 sprigs thyme, chopped

Cube tomatoes and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Add minced garlic, capers, olive oil, vinegar, and red pepper flakes. Cover with a kitchen towel and let the oils and vinegar marinate tomatoes for about an hour. Before serving, add fresh thyme. 

August for the win!