Tuesday, November 23, 2010

0 Holiday Eating & Baking: Neither Have To Be Scary ;)

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A pal of mine had recently told me she was going to attempt making an apple pie for the holidays & so, had asked me for a few pie-baking tips. So, I compiled some tips & sent them off to her. And then, not long after I'd finished composing the email, it dawned on me that it'd be a great idea to also share these tips with you here.

The funny thing is that when I've baked pies in the past, they've usually been for someone else, , i.e., usually as a gift for the hostess & guests of a holiday dinner party. However, that was then, this is now. These days, I hardly ever give baked goods as gifts anymore. First, I'd rather not give people unhealthy presents -- one may as well say, "Here, have some diabetes and premature aging!" ;) (After all, what kind of friend would I be to give that kind of present to someone?!) And second, who has time to make sweets when one is rushing around to prepare for the holidays? Maybe your grandma? ;) Getting all of the holiday shopping done is only the starting point of the preparation for most people.... I don't know about you, but I'm trying to simplify the process of getting ready for the holidays, not make my life a living hell. LOL.

So, as a dinner or house guest, what do I give instead? Of course, I don't like to arrive empty-handed, so I'll usually bring the hostess & their family either a bottle of wine, or, if they're not big drinkers, a gift basket (containing food &/or nonfood items).

If I was forced to bake something, ideally, it'd be best to deposit the baked goodies and then not stick around for the eating part. :) That is, unless the baked goods are actually healthy choices. :) Some people probably will think I'm insane for saying that, but I honestly couldn't give a fig. Well, at least a fig is healthy. LOL. Sure, I like to eat sweets from time to time, but they're not a huge part of my life. My world just doesn't revolve around refined sugar. I just wasn't raised that way, so it never really felt like I was missing out on anything. Growing up, we rarely ate "traditional" dessert after dinner, and instead, would either opt for fruit &/or sometimes a cup of herbal tea, or nothing at all. Shocking, I know. :)

This is also probably why I'm pretty good at saying "no" to sweets at parties & other types of gatherings. Plus, this resolve is bolstered even more particularly when I've been working out a lot & really just don't want to blow it. :) Of course, I'm not professing to be a saint all the time, but more times than not, I'm able to stay on the "healthy eating" path, even in the face of "temptation."

For a lot of people, this is a challenging time of year, especially when it comes to staying on track with one's eating. There seem to be sweets everywhere one looks. (Quick, avert thine eyes! ;) ) And being around sweets in an office environment is basically the equivalent of keeping them in the house around the holidays, or really any other time of the year. Don't know about you, but for me, that's just really asking for it. ;) Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. :)

All I can say is that if you set your intentions and have pre-planned eating strategy before you "go into battle" (LOL!), you are much more likely to be successful in keeping your resolve and sticking to your health-related goals. Also, please understand that I'm NOT saying that you should be extreme & not eat ANY sweets over the holidays -- that would probably be unrealistic for most people -- but rather, that it'd be a wise idea to set portion guidelines for yourself before approaching known vulnerabilities/temptations. One cookie doesn't have to lead to six. :) Eat consciously and focus on your larger goals & then it most likely won't come to that.

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If I do bake these days, it's mostly tarts versus pies, as it's much easier to make no-sugar, lowfat versions of tarts that actually taste good. :) While it's relatively easy to substitute other ingredients for refined sugar, pie crusts made without any butter tend to be, well, just plain awful. :)

In general, it's really hard to make tasty "traditional" baked goods without sugar & butter. I'm not saying it's impossible, but this is also why I tend not to bake pies, cookies, or cakes very often. It's honestly a LOT easier to cook healthy meals than it is to create original recipes for tasty baked goods that are also low in sugar & fat. Some baked goods are easier to revamp into healthier versions of themselves than others. Some examples of easily modifiable baked goods include muffins, breads (whether sweet or savory), & tarts. But cakes, cookies, & pies? Er, not so much. And a lot of that has to do with the chemistry of baking. Chemical reactions require specific ingredients and ingredient ratios. Otherwise, the results will be a bit scary. ;)

On this topic, I am once again reminded of what happened when I attempted to make a healthy version of orange scones as part of the "Make It Healthier" challenge for @britishbulldog@andyo22. It was hard enough creating a tasty, no-sugar, low-fat cookie recipe, which I did eventually manage to accomplish (after several tries), but scones? OMG. Stop right there. I'm still trying to figure that one out. ;) And @britishbulldog & @andyo22 are probably wondering why I still haven't posted that recipe yet. LOL.

Anyhow, enough about the hilarity of past kitchen mishaps.... Below are some tips for making great-tasting, and yes, also much healthier (!), apple pie:

Apple selection & prep:
--Use a mixture of different apple varieties. Personally, I like combining tart & sweet apples -- My favorites (for baking/pies) are Granny Smith, Gala, & Fuji. (These kinds aren't very watery either, which is very important for baking!) I also prefer crisp apples over mealy ones, because the mealy ones taste kind of thready. Look for locally grown varieties, which will, of course, be the freshest.
--Check apples for firmness. Firm apples are good, but don't use overly hard apples. They'll take forever to bake. ;)
--IMPORTANT: DON'T ever use Red Delicious, Empire, or McIntosh apples for apple pies. Unbelievably, some people swear that they taste good in pies, but those people clearly don't have any taste buds, nor do they have a clue which apples should be used for baking. LOL. Of course, neither type is suitable for baking. Got questions on which apples are best for baking? Consult this chart.
--After you cut the apples, add lemon juice to the apples right away to prevent oxidation.

The filling:
--I don't add a lots of sugar to my pies because the apples tend to be pretty sweet on their own. In fact, I usually don't add any refined sugar and will instead opt for honey if the pie needs to be made sweeter. However, whatever sweetener you decide to use (if any), I do recommend that you first taste the apples & then adjust the tartness/sweetness ratio to suit your own taste preferences. Using your taste buds usually works better than just blindly following a cookie-cutter recipe to the letter. ;)
--Mix the apples, pinch of salt, spices, & lemon juice, etc. together first, and then drain the juices using a colander. Reserve the liquid & combine with a thickening agent like flour, corn starch, or arrowroot, cooking it all together in a sauce pot. Then pour the liquid mixture over the apples after you've packed them into the pie shell.

The pie crust:
--While fresh is best, there's no shame in using a pre-made pie crust to save time. The holidays are busy enough. There are times when it's best to make things easier on yourself. :) And besides, who will really know unless you tell them? ;) Either that, or recruit members of your family to make the homemade pie crust while you make the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner. ;) Maybe the crust will be ready by the time you finish cooking the turkey & making the pie filling. LOL.
--Tips for a crisp crust: Lightly sprinkle a few breadcrumbs across the pie shell before adding the filling, to absorb any extra moisture. They'll bake right in & no one will even be able to taste that they're in there.
--Paint the crush with some egg (whites or yolks) & give it enough time to dry before adding the filling. Some people also use milk or a mixture of the two (i.e., an "egg wash), although I've only ever tried egg by itself; so I can't compare the results. Egg's always worked fine for me.

Prebaking the crust:
--To pre-bake the crust or not to prebake. Hmmm. This is a tough call. On the one hand, if you make the pie crust at the same time you bake the filling, there's a chance the crust will be soggy & undercooked. However, if you do pre-bake the crust, it can be only too easy to burn the crust if you don't watch it carefully. ;) Personally, I'd rather take my chances & not have a soggy pie crust. ;)
--An important step is to freeze the pie shell for at least 30 minutes (until adequately chilled) before pre-baking it.
--To help the pie crust keep its structure & prevent the bottom crust from puffing up, be sure to line the pie shell with parchment paper or a large coffee filter & fill it with "rice" or "beans" to weight down the crust. Of course, after you prebake the crust, remember to remove them before adding the filling. LOL. Be sure to push the beans or rice up against the sides of the parchment/coffee filter to keep the sides of the crust from collapsing in the heat of the oven.
--Also, DON'T use aluminium foil or pie weights; the former doesn't work as well because it doesn't allow the crust to breathe. Plus, it can get stuck in the crust, which can be a pain in the @#$%&*! to get out. ;) The latter (pie weights) are usually too heavy, and tend to produce a stiff, cardboard-like crust. Yuck. :)
--After you prebake the crust, prick the bottom with the tines of a fork to allow the steam to escape. Allow crust to cool slightly before adding filling.
--More prebaking tips can be found here.

Baking the pie:
--Place aluminum-coated baking tray underneath pie-plate while pie is cooking to prevent juices from overflowing onto oven.
--Before baking the pie, make sure you cut large vent holes in the top crust with a knife so the moisture can escape. Otherwise, you'll have a soggy crust & underbaked apples. ;)
--To cut baking time in half, try this trick: Place the pie in a microwaveable pie plate & then microwave it on high for 12-14 minutes, or until filling starts to bubble through the slits in the crust. Then transfer to a conventional oven & continue to bake until crust is flaky & golden brown.
--Apples will shrink during baking, so it's really important to pile on the apples & pack them in tightly before you seal the top crust. Layer the apples so there isn't any space in between. Apples should fill the entire shell & press up against the outer edges of the pie shell. Fill in any remaining gaps before sealing.
--How to tell if the pie is ready: Take a sharp paring knife & make a small incision to test. The knife should slide through without any resistance, but the pie should still be firm.

If you'd like some more tips, check out:
How to Make the Best Apple Pie You've Ever Eaten
Ten Top Tips for Baking An Apple Pie

Hope you find the above tips to be helpful! Good luck with your holiday baking expeditions & hope you all have a great Thanksgiving!

Happy Holidays,
-C

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