pie experiments

I recently found out about a pie cook-off contest in the city we live in. And as I’ve mentioned before (a few times), I love making pies! So I was really excited, and started experimenting with different crusts and fillings to come up with the perfect pie for the contest!

Unfortunately, they were only taking a very limited number of applicants (is that really the right word? you know what I mean) and all the slots were filled before I could enter! Alas. There’s always next year.

And I got to enjoy making (and sampling) all of these pies anyway!

mini pies

Don’t worry – these aren’t full size pies. I used little glass ramekins so that I could make several different pies with only one dough recipe. And not have to use as much fruit and such if the filling turned out to be less than great. So the pies you see here are a cherry pie (with fresh local cherries from the farmer’s market!), a peach pie, and an apricot pie (with apricots from the tree in our backyard!).

mini peach pie

I experimented a bit with the crust, and decided to try adding some cream cheese. It was good, but not great. It was a bit thicker and denser than I prefer – I like pie crust a bit more light and flaky. The fillings were all pretty good, but the apricot was my least favorite.

Time for some more experimenting.

Since I still had lots of peaches, I decided to try some variations on my peach pie, and a new crust.

mini peach honey pie

This time I used butter (instead of shortening like most recipes call for) and it came out much lighter and flakier than the cream cheese crust, and definitely more flavorful than the typical shortening crust. Winner. And for the filling, I used some honey instead of just sugar, along with cinnamon and nutmeg, and it made for a delicious combination of flavors! Winner! Except that the filling turned out really runny, so I’ll have to work on that and post the recipe once I get it perfected… But the taste was still amazing.

So even though I won’t get to enter the pie contest this year, I found my personal winner for the summer! And maybe next year I’ll have it perfected and enter the contest in time!

super simple chocolate sauce

My name is Megan, and I have a problem. I’m a little addicted to chocolate. It’s just so good! And so good with other things! And that’s why I made this chocolate sauce.

super simple chocolate sauce

It’s so quick and easy to make, and can be used for so many things! My favorite is on ice cream, but it’s also great on fruit, or used as a glaze for cakes or donuts, or to just eat by the spoonful. I mean…

simple chocolate sauce recipe

And all you need to make it is chocolate chips and half-and-half! And you can make as much or as little as you want – it’s just two parts chocolate chips, one part half-and-half. I usually do 1 cup chocolate chips, and 1/2 cup half-and-half. That makes enough for about 10 ice cream sundaes. And since it reheats well, if you have extra just keep it in the fridge and reheat it in the microwave.

In a small saucepan, heat the chocolate chips and half-and-half over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the chocolate melts and the sauce is smooth. It takes about five minutes. Pour over ice cream, fruit, etc.

super simple chocolate sauce recipe

It will set up a little bit, kind of like ganache, as it cools, but it won’t get hard.

Note: I used dark chocolate chips because I thought that would taste good with the amazing cherries we bought at the farmer’s market (it did!) But you could use dark, milk, or semi-sweet, depending on the taste you want.

Super Simple Chocolate Sauce

1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup half-and-half

Combine chocolate and half-and-half in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until the chocolate melts and the sauce is smooth. Serve over ice cream, fruit, as a glaze, etc.

train cake for my birthday boy

We celebrated my “big boy’s” third birthday this week! He’s completely obsessed with trains, so I decided to make him a train cake. Last year I made him a car cake, but this year’s definitely had to be a train.

train locomotive birthday cake

He even picked out what colors he wanted. (Ok, so he actually wanted some yellow too, but I didn’t feel like making three different colors… I’m sure it would have been cute though!)

So, this cake turned out kind of big… I had to cut out a piece of cardboard from a box and cover it with foil because I don’t have any plates big enough to hold this cake. I used two cake mixes to make it, and two cans of frosting. If you’re making the cake/frosting from scratch, you’ll want to double the recipes.

Here’s what you’ll need to make a train cake:

2 boxed cake mixes (and everything needed on package to make) or double batch of your favorite cake recipe
2 cans of frosting or double batch of favorite frosting recipe
Food coloring
1 9×13 sheet cake pan
1 9″ round cake pan
1 loaf pan
4 glass ramekins  (6 or 8 oz)
Large platter or cardboard covered with foil

train birthday cake how to

Here’s all the different pans I used to make the train cake. I know, I’m a little crazy. But it actually wasn’t that difficult, just a little time-consuming.

So once you’ve got your cake batter ready and oven preheated, evenly distribute the batter between all the pans. You’ll want them to all be about the same height (the wheels can be a little higher) so that when you put all the pieces together they’re pretty even.

train cake how to

Each pan was probably only about 1/2 full, and the ramekins were about 3/4 full. Since I had so many different sizes, and they weren’t quite as full as normal, I checked them fairly often for doneness. The little ones were done in about 15 minutes, everything else in about 30 I think. Let them cool a bit, then turn out onto cooling racks to finish cooling.

Be especially careful with the sheet cake when removing it from the pan – mine cracked! It turned out ok once I frosted it, especially since I had to smooth the edges between the different pieces anyway.

train locomotive cake how to

The 9×13 sheet cake makes up the main body of the locomotive. Cut the 9″ round in half, and put one half on the end of sheet cake to make the front of the locomotive. Cut about 1/3 of the cake from the loaf pan off, and use the remaining 2/3 to make the cab. Cut a small piece from what’s left to make the funnel. Cut a small piece from the round edge of the remaining round cake for the roof of the cab.

Set each of the wheels over the cake where you want them, and cut around them to make a slot to insert the wheels.

Now mix up the colors you want for the frosting. I used one whole can of frosting to frost the main portion of the cake (the blue). Then I mixed about half of the other can in green for the wheels and other accents. I left the rest white for trim, etc.

My trick for frosting this cake without it crumbling to bits? I melted the frosting. I stuck it in the microwave for about 30 seconds until it was nice and runny. Then I let it cool for a few minutes, and then basically just poured it on the cake, and used a knife to smooth it out. I took the green pieces off first so the blue wouldn’t run onto them, and frosted those on a separate plate. Then I put everything back to together, added the white trim, and ta-da! We had a locomotive cake!!

train birthday cake

Love this bright, energetic, crazy, fun little birthday boy! And he loved his train cake!!

How to make a pie crust

I love making pies. I’ve talked about this before, but seriously, it’s almost therapeutic for me. There’s just something so satisfying to me about making the whole thing from scratch – crust, filling, everything. And it just tastes soooo much better than those horrible frozen pies, or the ones in the grocery store bakery that have probably been sitting there for a week and don’t seem to actually contain real fruit.

And maybe it’s just because I like to make them, or maybe I’m just a snob, but there really is a huge difference between a pie with a homemade crust and a store-bought crust. I know, it’s just the thing that holds the filling together. No one eats pie for the crust. But still, if you start with a good crust, the whole pie is better. Trust me.

My mom is a wonderful cook, but she just refuses to make her own pie crusts. She’s convinced it’s too much work, too hard, and never turns out right. But I promise, they’re really not that hard! So I’m going to share a few tips, tricks, and my go-to recipe so that you can make your own pie crusts and dazzle everyone with your amazing pie-making skills.

how to make a pie crust 1 First, let me introduce you to my friend the pastry blender. This simple little kitchen gadget makes all the difference in making perfect pie crusts. They’re pretty cheap, and you can find them anywhere they sell kitchen tools. But this thing does most of the work for you.

Put your flour and salt in a large bowl, and mix together. Then add the shortening, and use the pastry blender to mix. Use a scooping motion to cut the shortening into the flour. You’ll probably need to occasionally scrape some of the shortening off the sides of the pastry blender.

how to make a pie crust 2

See in the picture above, there are still large chunks of shortening, but it’s starting to get this crumbly texture. Keep using the pastry blender, in that same sort of scooping motion, to break up the shortening and blend it in to the flour.

how to make a pie crust 3

This is about the texture you want it to be – nice and crumbly looking, almost like lots of little pea-sized lumps. Now you’re ready to add the water. Use cold water! This keeps the shortening from melting. I know some people even use ice water, but as long as it’s cold, it’s worked for me.

Start adding the water one tablespoon at a time. You can keep using the pastry blender at first, but I usually end up using my hands once it starts getting soft and sticky.

how to make a pie crust 4

Your dough should look about like this – a little bit sticky, but still kind of flaky. If it won’t stick together, add a little more water. If it’s really sticky and wet, add a little more flour. Don’t over-mix or knead it, just mix till it will stick together and form a ball. You want a nice marbled look (you can see it better in the picture below). Form a ball, and turn it out onto a floured surface to roll it out. Press the ball flat with the palm of your hand. You can refrigerate the dough for about half an hour now, wrapped in plastic wrap, before rolling it out – some say it’s easier to roll and makes the crust more flaky. I usually don’t (because I don’t plan ahead and have enough time…) and mine still turn out fine.

how to make a pie crust 5

Roll it out until it’s nice and thin. If it starts to tear, wet your fingers and patch it back together. If the dough sticks to the rolling pin too much, rub a little more flour onto the rolling pin. When rolling the dough, use firm and even pressure on the rolling pin to push the dough out and away rather than down. Change directions often to create a circle. (Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly round. Mine never are. You’ll trim the edges later anyway. You just want to make sure it’s roundish so it will fit in your pie pan.)

You can see that nice marbled look in the picture above – it’s the shortening not completely blended in with the flour. This is what makes the pie crust flaky! That’s why you don’t want to over-mix it.

Once you think it’s thin and big enough, turn your pie plate upside down over the crust to measure; it should come out at least one to two inches all the way around the edge of the pie pan. If it’s big enough, you’re ready to move it to the pie pan!

how to make a pie crust 6

The best way I’ve found to do this is slowly and gently lift one side and fold the crust in half. Then, still slowly and gently, lift one side to fold it in fourths. Now pick up the wedge of crust, move it to the pie pan, and unfold it. If there are any tears, wet your fingers and press the crust back together.

Now trim any extra around the edges (you can leave a little extra either to make a decorative edge, or to seal the top crust on) and fill your pie! Or if you’re making a cream pie or other pie that doesn’t need to bake, poke a few holes with a fork in the bottom and side, and bake the crust. (The holes keep it from puffing up or forming bubbles in spots.)

And here’s my favorite recipe! Makes one 9-inch crust

Basic Pie Crust

1 cup flour
pinch of salt
1/3 cup shortening
3-4 Tbsp cold water

Mix flour and salt in a medium or large bowl. Add the shortening, and use a pastry blender to cut it in to the flour (see tips above).

Once it has a nice crumbly texture, about the size of small peas, begin to add the water one tablespoon at a time. Continue adding water until the dough becomes sticky enough to form a ball. If it gets too sticky, add a little more flour.

Roll it into a ball, then put it on a floured surface and press it flat. You can wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about half an hour if desired (some say it makes it easier to roll out, and flakier). Use a floured rolling pin to roll out the dough. It should be about two inches larger than the pie pan. Slowly and gently fold the dough in fourths, transfer to the pie plate, and unfold. Mend any tears with wet fingers gently pressing the dough back together. Trim the edges, and you’re ready to fill the crust! Then just bake according to the directions for that pie.

If you’re making a pie that needs a pre-baked shell, use a fork to poke a few holes in the bottoms and sides, then bake it at 475 for about 15 minutes (check after 10). Let it cool, then fill.

Sorry if I disappointed anyone by not having cute ideas for the pie crust edges. I usually just use a fork to create a ridged look, or put a crust on top – which I’ve usually cut a heart or other shape in the center of. Maybe some day I’ll get more creative and share some decorative ideas! In the meantime, go make a pie and see how simple and delicious it is to have a homemade crust!

Easter Cupcakes

Easter is so early this year, I feel like I’m not at all ready for it! Although I did buy some Easter candy the other day (which my son tore open and started eating at the grocery store…). But since I haven’t really done much for Easter yet this year, I decided to share something from last year.
Easter cupcakes 1

We made these cute and super-easy Easter cupcakes! Sorry if I got anyone’s hopes up, but this isn’t an awesome recipe for delicious cupcakes, just some ideas for decorating them for Easter or Spring. Just use your favorite cupcake/cake recipe (or *gasp* a packaged mix) and let them cool enough to frost and decorate them.

What you’ll need:

Cupcakes
Frosting
Shredded Coconut
Green food coloring
Easter candy (Robin’s Eggs, M&M’s, chocolate eggs, peeps, jelly beans, etc.)
Flower sprinkles

For the frosting, you could just buy some, or make your favorite frosting, or use this simple buttercream frosting recipe:

Buttercream Frosting

3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
2-3 Tbsp milk

In a large bowl, blend the powdered sugar and butter until well combined. Add the vanilla and 2 Tbsp milk, and mix. Add more milk if needed to reach desired consistency. (If it gets too runny, just add a little more sugar.)

Note: If you want a different flavor, you can just omit the vanilla and add about the same amount of a different extract (e.g. almond, mint, cherry, etc.), although you’d probably want to go a little less on stronger flavors like mint.

For these cupcakes, I added a few drops of green food coloring to turn the frosting a nice pastel green.

Then I put some shredded coconut in a sandwich bag, added a few drops of green food coloring, and squished it around until the coconut was all nice and green. (Some pieces will be lighter or darker – you probably won’t get a uniform shade of green.)

Now you’re ready to frost the cupcakes! You don’t want to frost them until you have everything ready so that the frosting doesn’t dry out before you put the coconut on.

Once they’re all frosted (or you can assembly line it, especially if you have kids big enough to help out!) sprinkle the coconut on top, and gently press down to get it to stick in the frosting.

Easter cupcakes 3

If you’re using sprinkles, go ahead and sprinkle them on now. You’ll probably want to press them down a little like you did the coconut “grass” to help them stick.

For the bigger candies, you may need to dab a little frosting on the bottom of each to help them stick.

Easter cupcakes 2

 

Just get creative! These would be super cute with bunny Peeps on top (we didn’t use any because no one in my family really likes them) or even dye some coconut brown to look like a nest and do Peeps chicks.

Happy Easter!

Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cream Pie

I love making pies. Which is kind of ironic because my husband absolutely loves cake, and I don’t really like making cakes. At least he agrees that my pies are always delicious, even if he would prefer a cake.

I started making pies for Thanksgiving when I was about twelve. I have a little dream to one day open up a little pie shop. (I kind of want it to be just like the Pie Hole in Pushing Daisies…) So I often invent pie recipes in my head. I wish they were as creatively titled as the ones Kerri Russell invents in her head in Waitress. But they are most definitely delicious! (And no, I don’t base all of my cooking on TV shows and movies… just apparently my pie making.)

I rarely actually make the pies I invent… but I’m working on ways to make that happen more often – without consuming mass quantities of pie, that is.

This pie was actually a Valentine’s Day invention. You can’t get much more Valentinesy than chocolate covered strawberries, right?

chocolate covered strawberry cream pie 2

Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cream Pie: Chocolate cookie crust, a layer of dark chocolate custard, a layer of strawberry cream, topped with dark chocolate shavings and a chocolate covered strawberry.

I know, this isn’t exactly a healthy treat… but at least I used fresh strawberries! And dark chocolate! That’s got to count for something. Let me make a little confession here: I have a serious sweet tooth. I try to find healthy alternatives so I don’t just eat chocolate and candy all the time. But sometimes, you’ve just got to have the real thing. So many (most) of my dessert recipes will probably be less healthy than my other recipes. But at least they’ll be delicious!

For this pie I actually broke one of my cardinal rules of pie making – I used a store-bought crust! But I knew I didn’t have time to experiment with making my own chocolate crust, and I needed a disposable pie tin (I took one of the pies to a neighbor) so I caved. It wasn’t terrible… but I definitely want to come up with my own crust for this pie next time.

 chocolate covered strawberry cream pie 1

This recipe makes two pies – perfect for sharing the love! Or if you want, you could do just the chocolate layer or just the strawberry layer for one pie.

You’ll want to make the chocolate custard first so it has time to set up a little before pouring the strawberry layer on top. Be patient with this! It takes a long time for the custard to thicken. Just keep the heat on medium and keep stirring. If it starts boiling, then it’s done (but it doesn’t have to boil! It’s just that if it reaches boiling, it won’t get any thicker.) Once the custard is nice and thick, you’ll take it off the stove, add the vanilla, butter, and chocolate chips. Stir until the chocolate is completely mixed in, then pour half into each pie shell.

chocolate strawberry pie recipe 1

Put the pies in the fridge so the chocolate can begin to set up while you make the strawberry cream.

In a large bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Puree the strawberries in a blender or food processor. With a rubber spatula, slowly fold in the pureed strawberries and sweetened condensed milk.

strawberry cream pie recipe 1

You can add a little more of the sweetened condensed milk if the strawberries are really tart – but don’t add too much or it will overpower the strawberry flavor and make the cream runnier.

The strawberry cream will be about the consistency of yogurt (and feel free to eat it by the spoonful like yogurt! It’s pretty tasty!)

 strawberry cream pie filling

Pour half of the strawberry cream into each of the pie shells on top of the chocolate layer.

chocolate strawberry pie recipe 2

Refrigerate for about 4 hours, or until set. The strawberry cream layer will stay fairly soft, but should set up enough to top it with a chocolate-covered strawberry (the strawberry will sink in a little, but not very far) and some dark chocolate shavings.

Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cream Pie Recipe

2 chocolate cookie pie crusts (like Oreo or Keebler)

Chocolate custard:
5 Tbsp cornstarch
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups milk (I used 2%)
3/4 cup half-and-half
3 egg yolks
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips (milk or semi-sweet would work too)

Strawberry cream:
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
3/4 cup strawberry puree
1/2 can sweetened condensed milk

1. Mix cornstarch, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Add milk and half-and-half. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until smooth and thick. (This takes a long time – be patient!)

2. With the egg yolks in a small bowl, slowly stir in at least 1/2 cup of the cream mixture (this keeps the eggs from scrambling in the hot custard). Slowly pour the egg mixture into the saucepan with the rest of the cream, stirring well. Cook 2-3 minutes more, stirring.

3. While this finishes cooking, melt the chocolate chips in the microwave, about 30 seconds. (They don’t have to be completely melted)

4. Remove pan from heat and add butter, vanilla, and melted chocolate chips. Stir well to make sure chocolate is completely melted and mixed. Pour half of the custard into each pie shell and put them in the refrigerator.

5. While the chocolate custard is setting, make the strawberry cream. Puree the strawberries in a blender or food processor until smooth. (It takes about 1 1/2 cups of berries to make 3/4 cup puree).

6. Whip the whipping cream until stiff peaks form. Slowly fold in the strawberry puree and sweetened condensed milk. Pour (or spoon) half of the strawberry cream on top of the chocolate layer in each pie. Put them back in the refrigerator to set up for at least 4 hours, or even overnight. The strawberry layer may be a bit runny – the longer it stays in the fridge the better!

7. Top with a chocolate covered strawberry and chocolate shavings if you want, and serve!

Note: The chocolate custard layer was adapted from the Lion House Basic Cream Pie recipe.