Basic Techniques & Tips
Flaky Pie and Biscuit Dough
The secret to successful pastry-making is to work quickly so that tiny pieces of fat get dispersed evenly into the flour. When the fat melts in the oven, air pockets form, producing flaky pastry. I use very cold butter and/or vegetable shortening, and a metal mixing bowl to keep them cool (the bowl from a standing mixer works well.)
Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and add it to the dry ingredients, working lightly with just the fingertips. If you’re using vegetable shortening, which has a softer consistency, incorporate it into the mixture now. As you break-up the fats, scoop the crumbs from the bottom of the bowl, letting them fall through your fingers until the pieces are mostly the size of rice and peas. A few lima bean-sized pieces are fine.
Alternatively, use a food processor to initially cut the fat into the flour, but after a few pulses, remove the mixture to a bowl and finish by hand.
Add some ice water, pinching the dough together to form big clumps, then trickle in the remaining water until you can make a ball. If making a double crust, divide the dough in half, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before rolling.
Sometimes tapioca pearls leave an unpleasant texture in the mouth. To avoid this, I grind tapioca in a mini-processor until fine.
Preserving Vanilla Beans
Good quality, inexpensive vanilla beans are available in quantity online. I picked up this tip for storing them and making your own vanilla extract from Ina Garten’s “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.” Put a dozen or so beans in a tall glass jar, pour in vodka to cover, close the jar, and store in a cupboard. The beans stay soft and after about a month you’ll have vanilla extract. Add more beans and vodka as you go–the “brew” lasts indefinitely–mine is about ten years old.
Put regular granulated sugar in a food processor and pulse for a few moments. The sugar crystals will become finer and less shiny.
OTHER COOKING TECHNIQUES
Salting and Tasting
I use kosher salt for cooking (I prefer the Diamond Crystal brand, which does not contain any chemical additives.) For finishing, I prefer flaky sea salt (I use Maldon).
Before cooking meat or poultry, I always pre-salt a day or even a few hours ahead. Judy Rodgers gives a thorough explanation of the benefits of this method in her book, “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” pg. 35.
When I saute or roast vegetables, I begin to salt as soon as the vegetables hit the pan. When sauteing onions, for example, the salt helps to release moisture from the onions so they’re less likely to burn. I continue to taste the dish , adding salt and a few grindings of pepper as I go along. In this way, all that’s needed to finish is a dusting of flaky sea salt and a few last grindings of pepper.
When chopping ginger, slice the root on the horizontal to avoid long strings.
Split the pomegranate in half with a knife. Place the two halves in a bowl filled with water. Break the pomegranate apart with your fingers, allowing the white fibrous membrane to float to the top while the seeds sink to the bottom. With a large slatted spoon, skim off the floating membrane. Find any other stray pieces of membrane, discard, and drain the seeds into a fine mesh strainer. They should last about a week in the refrigerator in a covered container.
Treating Burns with Lavender Oil
A lavender vendor at the market told me lavender oil soothes burns. I was skeptical, but curious, so I bought a little vial. The next time I burned my hand, I ran it under cold water and applied a dab of oil. The pain subsided instantly. There must be a scientific explanation for this effect, but the folk wisdom has been around for ages. I became a true believer.
Pan- Roasting Seeds
Place the seeds in a heavy nonstick skillet under medium heat, stirring constantly until they darken and become fragrant. This takes about two minutes. Remove the seeds from the heat and and pour them on a plate to cool. (They must be cool before grinding or they will clump on the blades.) Finely grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in airtight jars.