Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie

Every summer the State of Iowa for one week the State of Iowa is home to the annual RAGBRAI- the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. The Des Moines Register, the city's largest newspaper, has hosted this annual event for close to fifty years, and it's famous for attracting people from all over the world, of all athletic abilities, and everyone who absolutely loves biking and pie. Seriously. Ask any RABGRAI participant and they will have a pie story from every stop along the way.

A table full of classic- apple, strawberry rhubarb, Dutch
apple and key lime pie.
Last summer the ride began in Glenwood and ended, six days and just over 400 miles later, in Muscatine. Every town along the route gets in the spirit and welcomes riders with carnival-like celebrations, live music, a place to pitch a tent for the night, food and drink, partying, and of course, pie. Do a quick Google search if you don't believe me- "RAGBRAI pie" and you'll see exactly what I mean. Each town along the route assembles an army of volunteer bakers and servers to meet the pie demand of the visiting riders. No store bought pie will do for these folks either. Hand rolled crusts, fresh berries and fruits or handed down recipes for creamy fillings, baked with love. Cut and served by volunteers to keep the hungry riders full of pie.

I decided in my quest for the perfect pie to try and master the perfect meringue. This was more of a challenge to me than I expected. I am not a huge fan of meringue on a pie. Crispy meringues, sure, I'll eat those all day, like crunchy meringue cookies that are baked at low temperature and left to dry in the cooling oven. I love those. Meringue on a pie though, it's soft and squishy and eggy and a little like marshmallow and I am more of a crispy flaky crust kind of person. Pie crust I mastered long ago so I accepted the challenge and decided to make a couple classics, a key lime pie and a lemon meringue pie. I really love the tangy lemon filling, and homemade is so easy and fresh. Don't forget to give your lemon a really thorough scrub as you will be using the zest from one whole lemon to add incredible lemon flavor to your filling. Invest in a good quality rasp-style zester and you'll get all the delicious zest without the bitter pith underneath.

The Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie

4 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/2 cup cornstarch
pinch of salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons butter- NOT MARGARINE!!!!

4 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

One baked pastry shell, 8 or 9 inch

For the meringue, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until foamy. Add the sugar a spoonful at a time while eating until firm peaks form and sugar has completely dissolved. Check by rubbing meringue between fingertips- you should not feel any graininess. Set aside.

For the filling, beat the yolks with the sugar. Add the remaining ingredients except the butter. Cook over medium low heat until mixture bubbles and thickens. Whisk constantly!!!! Stir in the butter.

Pour the filling into a baked pastry shell. Immediately cover with meringue, spreading to edges and sealing against the crust. Place in a preheated 400 degree oven until the meringue browns slightly. Cool completely before serving.

Besides the tangy lemon meringue pie I also made a key lime pie at the same time. Key limes are teeny tiny limes sold by the bag full and if you are going to juice your own you'll need quite a few. You'll also want to zest several of them- you usually want a generous tablespoon of shredded zest for your filling.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Company Cookbook Project

Of all the cookbooks on my shelves, those put together by churches, clubs, civic groups and other organizations are often my favorites. There is something comforting about the old casserole recipes, the easy to make cakes and desserts, and the funny names of those old recipes. Why have plain old sliced carrots when you can serve your family "Copper Pennies?" When is the last time you had "Wacky Cake?" If you're like me, probably not since you were in elementary school. I can always count on these assembled cookbooks to bring back the memories.

Often there is a salad section and it's usually packed with sparkly jello creations. Some of them are savory with cabbage and veggies and others are so sweet they should be a dessert. It's also common to find a few pickled veg type recipes too- like cucumbers and onions, or a tomato salad. My mom always made cucumbers and tomatoes with chopped onions in a vinegar and oil dressing. Pasta salads and potato salad are usually favorites. You might find a couple different family versions of bean salad, and don't forget the entree salads- like egg salad, chicken salad, and taco salad.

Just a few of my many club cookbooks
The entree section is usually where the real comfort foods are hiding. Casseroles of just about every kind lurk in there, with family secret spaghetti sauces, Dad's famous barbeque sauce, Gramma's bean soup and inventive ways to make tuna into something delicious. Up here in the Midwest, and especially Minnesota it's very common to see something called "Hot Dish" in those cookbooks. Hot Dish is a curious thing. It means something different to every cook. For some people it's tator tot casserole. For others it's something made with creamy soup. For my family it was some browned hamburger with chopped onion, a can of drained mushrooms, a couple handfuls of peas, cooked elbow macaroni and cream of something soup, stirred together in a big saucepan until everything is heated through. Completely NOT gourmet and not always delicious but it fills bellies and my mom made this on a fairly regular basis. Not a childhood favorite of mine but still a fun memory and it's interesting to talk with others from around here and learn about their family's hot dish recipe.

A few weeks ago my company sent around an email inviting associates to submit a recipe for a company cookbook that was being assembled. My employer places a great deal of emphasis on community involvement, inclusion and volunteerism. In an effort to raise money to support local food banks the company launched the cookbook project. Of course I had to get in on this deal. Picking a recipe wasn't all that tough, I knew I wanted to go with something relatively easy to prepare, with readily available ingredients and family friendly. I typed up my recipe for Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna, attached a picture and sent it off to the committee. 

Weeks go by, my recipe is proofed and sent back to me for a final look over. I can't wait for the day I can actually buy a copy of the company cookbook. One day I am busy working away on an account and I get a message- "Monica!!!!"  What's up, I reply, wanting to know what's so exciting. "Did you see the email?" Nope, I was busy with a client, haven't checked email in a bit. I finish up what I'm working on, check my email, and holy moly, there is an email from the company announcing not only the purchase days for the company cookbook but the cafeteria in our building selected five recipes from all the recipes submitted, to be prepared and featured as a lunch special for everyone to try and mine is one of them!! To some people this might not be too big of an accomplishment. After all, I know a lot of very successful chefs, competitive cooks, cookbook authors and recipe developers whose accolades far exceed mine, but in my small world and my little hobby food blog, this is big. 

Philly Cheesesteak Lasagna Day arrives in the cafeteria. I can hardly wait to see how my recipe is prepared by someone else. The clock ticks ever so slowly all morning while I wonder how it's going to turn out. I get an email from a member of the cookbook committee telling me to be sure and stop down at the table to introduce myself and when I finally make my way down to the company cafeteria I am met with hugs and smiles and lots of introductions to the kitchen staff. Lucy, the executive chef/kitchen manager came over to talk about how much she loved the recipe, and how well it's been selling as the lunch special. 

Squeeeeee! That's my dish on the line!
To be honest, it made me feel a little bit like a celebrity for a few minutes! My coworkers in my department raved about the dish, and I have to say, the kitchen did a fantastic job replicating my recipe. They put considerable effort into making it just like I would have- caramelizing the onions, browning the mushrooms until they are golden brown, and NOT skimping on the cheese. It was delicious. I ate every bit, including the garlic toast.

I can't wait to get the actual cookbook in my hands. My copy has been ordered and soon will occupy a place of honor on my cookbook shelves. I know I will enjoy preparing all the recipes submitted by employees from all over the country and will always cherish the memory of this special opportunity.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Chicken Schnitzel with Riesling

I've shared stories about my mom many times. Funny stories about board games gone wrong, wonderful memories of some of my favorite foods she made. My mother was a one of a kind. Just an itty bitty woman with a personality larger than life, she had a mouth that would shame a sailor. I always say it's because she learned to speak English on an army base. True story.

My mother is the one thing that connects me so closely to Europe. Born and raised in Wiesbaden my mother was a late in life baby born to older parents. Her brother and sister were grown and married with kids of their own by the time Mom came along. Her life was very simple. Her father was a tailor, her mother a homemaker, living in a small apartment when World War II erupted and changed Germany forever. Her father served in the German military when she was a little girl and was taken as a prisoner of war in Russia. 

My grandfather, Karl Betz
Mom told stories about the air raids conducted by the Allies, sleeping with your shoes and clothes on in case the alarm sounded and you had to flee to a bomb shelter. Mom had to flee several times as Wiesbaden came under attack. Nearly a quarter of the city was destroyed and nearly 2000 people killed. During and after the war food was pretty scarce around Mom's house. Mom said after Wiesbaden was liberated by the Allies the American GIs brought them big bags of food. Dehydrated vegetables mostly, and her family received a huge bag of dehydrated sweet potatoes and another of corn. I can honestly say I never saw my mother eat sweet potatoes ever, and while she always made corn for the rest of the Iowa corn-loving family, she did not eat it herself.

L to R- Mom, her brother Hienz, cousin Gisele,
my Oma Elsa and Opa Karl Betz
Fast forward to the late 1950s, when a skinny young kid from Minnesota enlisted in the U.S. Army and shipped out to Germany. Times were still tough in Germany and my mother took cleaning jobs from the "rich Americans" on the base and by some stroke of luck, met that skinny Minnesota boy, and the rest is history. They married, they moved to Minnesota, she became a U.S. Citizen and life fell into place. Mom's family still lived in Germany and with visits from my Oma to the United States and one fabulous summer spent traveling eleven different countries in Europe, my love for Europe was born. I learned to enjoy foods many adults would not eat, and while many kids were dining on hot dogs and mac and cheese, my sister and I were eating steak tartare, sauerbraten, trout cooked within minutes of being in the water in Italy, bread still warm from the boulangerie, and pasta on a shady terrace in the shadows of the Alps. And yes, we often had that small glass of wine.

Mom and Dad
Maybe it's my German heritage, or maybe it's just my taste buds, but as I grew to love wines I found myself really gravitating towards German Rieslings more than any other white wine. As a kid, I was able to try lots of different wines as is common in European families. By the time most of my friends were just starting to chug from beer bongs, I already had a pretty well experienced wine palate. The older I became, the more experience with wines I enjoyed, the one thing that never changed was my love of Riesling. As a wine tasting guide, Riesling class was one of my favorite classes to have. This wine is amazing and varied and so influenced by its terroir. German Rieslings are less sweet than Oregon and Washington State wines, not as acidic as versions from the Southern Hemisphere. Wines from the New York Finger Lakes Region are completely different still. Which brings me to this recipe. Choose a German or other European Riesling to make this easy take on chicken schnitzel. It won't overpower the dish with sweetness and it won't be too acidic for the lemon notes.

My Dad

Chicken Schnitzel with Riesling Sauce

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast
salt and pepper
all purpose flour
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup butter
1 cup Riesling
one lemon
1 cup heavy cream
snipped fresh chives or thyme for garnish

Place the chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper and gently pound out to even thickness. Season with salt and pepper; dredge in flour and set aside. Cut the lemon in half crosswise. Juice one half and thinly slice the other half.

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the chicken to the skillet and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides and cooked through. Remove to a plate and keep warm.

Add the mushrooms to the skillet. Cook and stir for several minutes until tender and starting to brown. Add the garlic for the last one to two minutes. Don't let the garlic get brown.

Add the lemon juice and wine to the skillet. Raise the heat and let mixture reduce slightly. Add the heavy cream and heat to bubbling. Add the chicken breasts and lemon slices to the sauce.

California Rieslings are very similar to German.
Delicious served over fluffy mashed potatoes or freshly made spaetzle, sprinkled with snipped chives or fresh thyme, with fresh green beans or asparagus on the side. This is very much like something my mother would have made. 

Speaking of spaetzle, I have discovered, just by chance, that Aldi carries a nice selection of dried spaetzle. I'm surprised every time I go in there- they have so many European grocery items, organic products and healthy options. Check it out if you're lucky enough to have an Aldi store nearby.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."