Mom’s Pulled Apple Strudel

For this recipe I’ll make a quick trip back home again, if only down the memory lane. I’m about eleven, standing in Mom’s red and white kitchen and watching in awe as she takes off her wedding ring, slides her hands under a sheet of rolled-out dough and starts stretching it gently with her fingers. She walks around the big kitchen table and pulls the dough slowly and carefully, until it is paper-thin – so thin, you can actually see through it. Magic. Then, when the sheet of dough is as big as the table, she scatters apples, raisins, and nuts all over, gives them a generous dusting of sugar and cinnamon, and starts rolling. Again, slowly, carefully, so she wouldn’t tear the delicate structure of the dough. And when she’s done, there is this freakishly long curved snake of filled dough ready to go into the oven. The kitchen is warm, and smells of baked apples, caramelized sugar, and cinnamon. Home.

Mom is quite the baker. Ever since I was little, she has tried to pass the mastery on to me (as a responsible Mother, she had to – what would my potential Mother-in-law think of her, if she wouldn’t teach me how to cook?!) I was eleven and was just starting to think that maybe boys weren’t as repulsive and horrible as I previously thought, yet I was already having nightmares about imaginary mothers-in-law that were watching my every step in the kitchen. As it was, standing side by side with Mom at the kitchen counter, I was never fast enough or neat enough. After about 10 minutes of cooking school, she always ordered me out of the kitchen saying it would be better if she did it herself. She knew her stuff, but not everyone is cut out to be a teacher 🙂

I still learned a lot just by watching her. She loved playing with food and feeding people. Still does. Nobody within a mile of her kitchen is ever hungry. (Hunger is a four-letter word at Mom’s. Not allowed, under any circumstance.) I don’t remember her ever weighing anything, yet her cakes always come out of the oven airy and perfect. She cooks by throwing a little bit of this and a little bit of that into the pot, and yet we are always licking our plates.

Looking back at my growing up days, and after many years in my own kitchen, I now think that maybe those grams and ounces aren’t all that important after all. And even though Mom and I had to cancel our cooking lessons when I got older so we wouldn’t risk killing each other, I’m quite certain she managed to teach me what’s most important: She taught me that food is a language – language of love that everybody understands and responds to. It brings people together, and tells them everything they need to hear. Even if the cook might have trouble finding words sometimes. strudel detail Pulled strudel – made with either apples, sweet farmer’s cheese or poppy-seed and cherry filling – used to be a staple dessert in all the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even though making it is not that hard, it is time-consuming, and not many people make it at home these days. The simple dough made of high-gluten flour, butter, egg, water, pinch of salt, and a splash of vinegar needs to rest under a preheated pan, and then it is rolled out, pulled and stretched until it’s extra-thin. It takes some practice to learn to stretch the dough with the back of your hands, but the process is actually very therapeutic: you can’t rush it, it forces you to slow down and take your time. And the smell and taste of freshly baked strudel is the best therapy there is, that’s for sure. Give it a try on a beautiful spring afternoon such as we in the Pacific Northwest were blessed with today. Nothing says “home” like the aroma of baked apples and cinnamon coming from the oven! apples

Mom’s Pulled Apple Strudel

(makes 1 big strudel or 2 smaller strudel pastries)

Dough:
  • 300 g (10 oz.) high-gluten (bread) flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
  • 100 – 125 ml  (around ½ cup) lukewarm water
Filling:
  • 1500 g (55 oz.) Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and grated
  • 80 g (3 oz.) plain breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) finely chopped walnuts/pecans
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) raisins/currants/dried cranberries
  • 150 g (5 oz.) white sugar
  • 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon

+ 2 tablespoons of melted butter for brushing the top of the pastry
1 egg yolk + 3 tablespoons of milk for the egg wash Pulling the dough

Method:
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C). Butter a large (15×11 inch) baking sheet. Preheat a small (2 qt./1.9 l) pan by boiling some water in it. Pour out the water and let the pan dry.
  2. To make the dough: Place flour, salt, and butter in the bowl of your food processor, fitted with an S-blade. Pulse to combine. With the food processor still running, add an egg, vinegar, and as much water until the dough pulls away from the sides and forms a ball. Continue mixing for another minute or two to activate the gluten. Place the dough ball on a wooden block, cover it with the preheated pan, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, make the filling: Toast breadcrumbs with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, stirring constantly. Set aside and let cool.
  4. Press out the juice from the apples. Combine the apples with the lemon juice to prevent them from browning, and set them aside.
  5. To make the strudel: On a floured surface, roll the dough into a 12 x 12 inch (30 x 30 cm) square. Transfer the rolled-out dough onto a tablecloth dusted with flour.
  6. Lift the dough from the work surface, and start gently stretching it with the back of your hands. Move your hands constantly and pull the dough with your fingers, working from the center to the edges, until the dough is paper-thin. (If the dough tears in some place, don’t try to repair the tear. Small tears are OK and won’t harm the strudel).
  7. Cut off the thicker edges of the dough, discard.
  8. Drizzle the dough with 4 tablespoons of melted butter. Sprinkle the dough with cooled toasted breadcrumbs, leaving the edges clear. Cover the dough evenly with apples, sprinkle with raisins, chopped nuts, lemon zest, sugar, and cinnamon. Drizzle with remaining 4 tablespoons of butter.
  9. Fold the empty edges of the dough over the filling. Roll the strudel up, and transfer it onto the buttered baking sheet seam side down. Tuck the edges on both sides under. Brush the strudel with melted butter.
  10. Bake for about 20 minutes. Turn baking sheet around, brush the pastry with egg wash, and continue baking for about 20 minutes more until golden brown.
  11. Let cool before slicing. Dust with powdered sugar to serve.

strudel before rolling up

Note:

Alternatively, you can make 2 smaller pastries instead of one long strudel (the smaller pastries will be easier to transfer and position on a baking sheet.) Just divide the dough ball in half, and keep one half under the hot pan while working with the other. Roll the dough thinly, and pull/stretch it until very thin. Use only half of the ingredients for the filling, and after transferring the first strudel onto a baking sheet, make the other one in the same way.  

Fresh Orange Tart

Feeding teenage boys is a doozy. I grew up with two sisters, and had absolutely no idea just how much a boy turning into a man can eat. If you have a little munchkin getting underfoot now, beware: In just couple of years he’ll shoot up seemingly overnight and starts devouring everything in sight. And I mean everything. All the time. Teenage boys are like vacuums: Never-ending suction of food.

You suddenly find yourself in a grocery store a lot more, to keep up with the growing demand. And when you come home and walk in with ten overflowing bags, the hungry creatures are already waiting. (I swear they must have some kind of a sixth sense – normally they can stay buried in their rooms for hours, but when they sense food, they’re in the kitchen in a nanosecond).

“I’m starving! What did you get?”

“You know, the usual: bread, milk, cheese, some peppers and tomatoes… Oh, I’ve also got some bloody oranges so you’ll have something to take to school for a snack.”

“Bloody oranges?” the older one asked with a smirk.

“Oh, those poor guys!” countered his brother. “Did they get into a fight or something?”

“Oh yeah, and it must’ve been a hard one. Look how badly bruised they are!”

They played with me for couple of moments, bouncing ironic comments off each other, having fun at their mother’s expense. (Warning # 2: don’t expect too much gratitude or respect from your teenage offspring. It’s just not what they do, so save yourself some disappointment and wait till they’re about 25). When they finally had enough, they reminded me of yet another nuance of the English language, which, as hard as I try, will never be my mother’s tongue. Bloody orange and blood orange are obviously two very different things: One you wouldn’t want to touch unless you’re a vampire, while the other is a sweet, juicy, crimson colored delicacy. Perfect to make some afternoon dessert from.

So I promptly decided the boys could have something else for a snack (they inhale anything, after all!), and started pondering what to make. Blood oranges have a thin skin, gorgeous dark red flesh, and tart-sweet taste reminiscent of raspberries.  I didn’t want to just hide them in some cake, I think they deserve better: I wanted to give them an opportunity to shine. And I have to say that the combination of a flaky crust, and candied orange slices placed on a bed of a sweet custard turned out to be just the perfect solution.

Beautiful presentation and a bloody good flavor to boot.

Orange tart detail

Fresh Orange Tart

Crust:
  • 1 Âľ cups all-purpose four (for a gluten-free crust Bob’s Red Mill Pie Crust Mix works well)
  • Âľ cups (3 oz.., 90 g) powdered sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 stick (4 oz., 114 g) unsalted butter, very cold
  • 1 teaspoon fresh orange zest
  • 1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk
Orange-Vanilla Custard:
  • ÂĽ cup fresh orange juice
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons fresh orange zest
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon orange liqueur (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 20 g (2 tablespoons) cornstarch
Candied Orange Slices:
  • 5 organic oranges, sliced very thin (I used combination of navel oranges and blood oranges)
  • 8 tablespoons of orange marmalade
  • 2 tablespoons of orange liqueur

Oranges in a bowl

Method:
  1. To make the crust: Place flour, powdered sugar, salt, and diced butter in the bowl of your food processor; pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg, egg yolk, and orange zest, and pulse until the dough forms a ball. Wrap the dough in a plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
  2. Butter and flour a 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Roll the dough between two sheets of parchment paper into a circle, and ease it into the pan. Dock the dough with a fork and put the pan in the freezer while you preheat the oven to 400 °F (200 °C).
  3. Fill the dough with pie weights or dried beans in a parchment paper, and prebake for 10 minutes. Remove the weights and bake for 10 – 15 minutes longer until golden. Let the crust cool completely before filling.
  4. For the custard filling: Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Blend all the ingredients for the filling. Carefully pour the filling into the cooled crust. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, until just set but still a bit wobbly in the center. (If the custard browns too quickly, cover the top with aluminum foil.)
  5. To make the candied oranges: Blend orange juice, marmalade and orange liqueur until smooth; pour the mixture into a big, shallow pan.
  6. Slice the oranges into a very thin slices and arrange them in a single layer into the pan. Add water until the slices are submerged, and simmer them on a low heat until they are soft (20 minutes). Drain them well and let cool.
  7. Meanwhile, reduce the syrup from cooking oranges until very thick, jelly-like consistency.
  8. Preheat the oven to 325 °F (160 °C). Arrange the orange slices in a concentric pattern on the custard, brush them liberally with the reduced sweet syrup and bake until the top is lightly browned.

img-2015-03-21-6065

Our daily (gluten-free!) bread

Marriage is supposed to make you grow. In this relationship you’ve willingly entered, you need to constantly learn, change, and adapt. My dear husband, Mr. Photographer, takes this requirement to grow very seriously. After many years of eating my food and being seemingly happy with it, he must’ve decided it was time for me to grow a bit, because one day, completely out of the blue, he came home from the doctor with a diagnosis of celiac disease.

*** Public service announcement: Gluten-free diet is not just another fad. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the gastro-intestinal tract, caused by a reaction to gluten – protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. The body of gluten-sensitive people is unable to absorb nutrients properly, and the only known treatment is a life-long gluten-free diet. The symptoms include gastrointestinal discomfort, anemia, and fatigue, but it is also possible to have celiac without any symptoms whatsoever. Those patients just find out incidentally during a regular check-up, and have the diagnosis confirmed by a blood test and a biopsy.***

You can guess which group of patients Mr. Photographer belongs to. Well, I always knew he was special 🙂

He was a trooper. Imagine being told that you can never have bread again. And bread is just the beginning – gluten hides in so many things you wouldn’t believe. But he just decided to concentrate on things he still could eat and enjoy. I, on the other hand, went through a period of real mourning. I’m a baker, darn it. What am I going to do?! After I came to terms with what I couldn’t change, I went to the store to look at what is available to people who need to be gluten-free. And I was surprised, and not in a good way. The breads were papery and sliced so thin you could see almost to the east coast through them. The baked goods were crumbly and dry. And since in that marriage deal I promised to take good care of Mr. Photographer, I’ve decided he would never have to suffer eating that sorry excuse of a food. And I set out to bake him good bread. Hearty, chewy, with a crispy crust. The kind of bread he used to love.

That’s when the real growing started. What’s the big deal? I thought. I’ve been baking forever and know what I’m doing by now. So what – I’ll just swap wheat flour for a gluten free one. It can’t be that hard! Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. My first loaves were hard as a rock and tasted horrible. My pride got hurt so many times I stopped counting. But I’m stubborn persistent. I kept at it, I experimented with different flours. I learned. I grew. I stretched. (Well, somebody had to, when that darn gluten free dough wasn’t going to, right?!)

Until one happy day we achieved bread.  And even though I baked countless different gluten free loaves since then, I keep coming back to this recipe, because it’s foolproof and mighty tasty. Over time, when I came to understand the characteristics of different GF flours,  I started to play around with it, using different flour combinations according to what I had on hand. It never disappoints.  And today I’m offering it to you as a proof that there is life after a celiac diagnosis that might be different, but it is still full of surprises and every bit as delicious as the life you used to know.

Gluten-free bread

Crusty gluten-free bread

(adapted from Gluten-free girl and the Chef)

For approximately four 1 lb. (½ kg) loaves you’ll need:
  • 2 cups (260 g, 9 oz.) brown rice flour
  • 1 ½ cup  (200 g, 7 oz.) sorghum flour
  • 3 cups tapioca starch (a.k.a. tapioca flour)
  • 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons xanthan gum (or guar gum – used as a binder)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 2/3 cup water, divided
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Sunflower, pumpkin or caraway seeds (optional)
 Method:
  1. Heat 2/3 cup water till lukewarm, add a pinch of sugar. Mix in dry yeast and set aside for 10 – 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. In a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a flat beater, carefully combine all the dry ingredients. Add the yeast mixture, eggs, oil, honey. With the mixer on, start gradually adding water until you achieve dough with consistency of cookie batter. (The dough will be soft, not at all like gluten yeast dough. You might be tempted to add more flour, but resist the temptation. If you do add flour, your bread will be hard as a rock. Soft cookie batter consistency is what you’re going for. You might not need all the 2 cups of water, and that’s OK.)
  3. Mix the dough for 2 – 3 minutes to combine everything together.
  4. Scrape the dough into a clean bowl, and let it rise, covered, in a warm spot for about an hour, until doubled in volume.
  5. You can now bake the bread, or transfer the risen dough into a bowl with a lid, and store it in the refrigerator for up to a week. Chilled dough is much easier to work with and has better flavor and texture as well.
  6. To make the bread: On a parchment paper, shape 1 lb. of dough into a small ball or a tapered loaf (wet your hands with a little water). Let the dough rest at a room temperature for 40 minutes, or 1 ½ hours if you pulled it out of the refrigerator.
  7. Half an hour before you’re planning to put the bread into the oven, put in a pizza stone, and heat the oven to 450 °F (230 °C). Put a metal baking pan on a rack below to preheat as well.
  8. Before baking, make ÂĽ inch (6 mm) deep slits on the top of the bread. Gently oil the top and sprinkle with seeds if desired.
  9. Transfer the bread onto a hot pizza stone in the oven (I put a small cutting board under the parchment and then slide the bread still on the parchment paper off the cutting board and onto a pizza stone).
  10. Pour a cup of water into a preheated pan on a lower rack and close the oven door. This will create a steam that will give your bread a crispy crust. (You can also throw a couple of ice cubes into the pan, just make sure the pan is not made of glass.)
  11. Bake the bread for about 35 minutes until light golden brown. (The internal temperature should be at least 180 °F, and the bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom). Let cool for 30 minutes before slicing.
 Note:

Unlike gluten based baking, when you use just one all-purpose flour, gluten free baking requires mixing various flour blends for different purposes. It might seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll quickly get a hang of it and might find it is actually pretty fun to play with different flour combinations. The flours used in gluten-free world are classified according to their density and nutritional value into 3 categories:

Light     – all the starches (tapioca starch, potato starch, corn starch, arrowroot powder)

Medium – sorghum, millet, quinoa,  (certified gluten-free) oat, bean flours

Heavy    – brown rice, buckwheat, almond, amaranth, teff flour

The recipe combines flours from each of the three groups: brown rice is a heavy flour, sorghum is a medium one, and tapioca starch belongs to a light category. You can sub the flours with any other alternative or combination from their respective categories, and are free to play around with many different possibilities. As long as you remember to sub heavy for heavy, medium for medium, and light for light, and stick to the quantities listed in the recipe, each of your breads will be unique and delicious.

The bread can also be baked in a loaf pan – it won’t be as crispy, of course, but it’ll still be very tasty. Just take 2 lbs. (900 g) of risen dough and place it into a lightly greased standard bread pan. With wet fingers smooth out the top and let the bread rise again in a warm spot while you preheat the oven until it rises a little over the top of the pan. (If taking the dough from the fridge, the second rise will take longer). Then bake the bread as written above – 30 – 35 minutes at 450 °F/230 °C. Let cool 5 minutes in the pan, then remove it from the pan and let cool completely.

And lastly, this wonderfully versatile dough also makes an awesome pizza! Just take 8 oz. (225 g) of the risen dough and spread it on a sheet of parchment paper into a thin circle (you can use a spatula or your fingers, just remember that a little water will help a lot to combat the stickiness 🙂 Drizzle the dough with olive oil and spread your favorite pizza sauce on top. Let the dough rest for a while (15 – 20 minutes), and then transfer it still on the parchment paper onto a hot pizza stone in an oven preheated to 400 °F/200 °C. Prebake the pizza for 7 minutes, then add your toppings and bake for 7 minutes more.

Pie pops with fresh berry preserves filling

Do you know what day is it today? Saturday, you say? You’re right, of course. It is the day when you hopefully get to sleep in a little, wake up slowly, yawning and stretching in your bed, and when it’s ok to lounge in your PJ-s till noon. (All of this applies only if you don’t have small kids. If you do, you’ve been up since 5 A.M., and from the moment you first jumped up, your day has been a hazy whirl of feeding, cleaning, and trying to keep the little tykes from killing themselves, or murdering each other. Don’t despair. This too shall pass, and soon enough you’ll get to know such Saturdays as I’m talking about).

Saturdays are awesome. But the reason why I’m asking about today is actually the date of this particular Saturday. A quick glance at the calendar reveals it’s March 14th, and according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, on March 14th (or 3/14) math lovers around the world “celebrate Ď€ day, commemorating the mathematical constant Ď€, since 3,1, and 4 are the first three digits of Ď€ in decimal form”. If you didn’t know, please don’t feel bad. Until last year, I didn’t have a clue either. If you ask me, there is nothing about math that would be even remotely celebration-worthy. Frankly, in my opinion math is just a handy acronym for Mental Abuse To Humans. Over the years I’ve been abused plenty by all those derivations, permutations, factorials, and quadratic functions the honored Ď€ is so close to, and I have scars to show for it. As soon as I could I ran from math far, far away, until I found rest in a safe haven of linguistics. The problem was right around that time I also met Mr. Photographer, who turned out to be a math-whizz, and who later gifted me with a carbon copy of himself in one of our sons. I’m afraid there is no way I’ll be able to run from math any time soon.

But back to that iffy Ď€ celebration thing. There is no celebration without some sweet treat, and what’s a better way to celebrate Ď€ day than with a pie? And because I love baking, and I also kind of like my two math lovers, I’m willing to forget the wounds math inflicted on my psyche and keep the truce for a day. So don your aprons and bake with me. Then eat the pie, share it with math lovers and math haters alike, or have a pie fight and throw freshly baked pies around (just be careful not to poke someone’s eye out with the stick!). Whatever you decide to do, have fun and enjoy yourself. Thankfully, unlike in solving equations, there is no wrong way to celebrate π day!

  Pie pops grouped

Pie pops with fresh berry preserves filling

(inspired by A. Smetona’s Easy as a pie pop
Pie crust recipe adapted from Barefoot Contessa)

Pie dough (makes 2 9-inch pie crusts, or about 15 pie pops):
  •  3 cups (390 g) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • pinch of salt
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1/3 cup cold shortening
  • ½ cup ice cold water
Berry preserves (recipe makes about 2/3 cup):
  • 200 g (7 oz.) fresh strawberries
  • 200 g (7 oz.) fresh raspberries
  • 150 g (5 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon Crème de framboise (raspberry liqueur, optional)

+ 1 egg for egg wash
coarse or colored sugar for sprinkling the top crust
8-inch (20 cm) lollipop sticks

 Pie pop individual
Method:
  1.  To make the pie dough: Place the flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl of your food processor, fitted with an S-blade. Add the (cold!) butter and shortening and pulse couple of times until the mixture resembles peas. With the processor still running, add as much cold water until the dough forms a ball. Divide the dough ball in half, wrap it and refrigerate (dough can be made ahead and refrigerated, or even frozen).
  2. To make the preserves: Run the berries through a food processor or a blender (it makes for a smooth jam that works best for the pie pops). Pour the blended berry mixture into a small saucepan, add all the other ingredients, and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly. Keep removing the foam from the surface (you can also add 1 teaspoon on butter to reduce foaming). Cook about 30 minutes until the jam is very thick, then let it cool to room temperature while you cut out the pie pops.
  3. On a well-floured surface, roll one dough ball into a circle (keep the other half in the fridge). With a floured 2.5-inch (6.5 cm) cut out 15 circles for bottom crust of the pie pops. Transfer the cut-out circles on a baking pan or a plate lined with parchment paper and refrigerate while you cut out the top crust of the pie pops.
  4. Roll out the other half of the dough and cut out 15 circles. With a small cookie cutter cut out the centers to reveal the filling.
  5. Assembling the pie pops: Brush each bottom crust with a little bit of egg wash and firmly press a lollipop stick in the center. Place about 1 1/2 teaspoon of preserves in the center (don’t overfill the pie pops, you don’t want the jam to ooze out). Place a top crust over the jam and press the edges.
  6. Crimp the edges with one of the lollipop sticks; first around the stick to hold it in place, and then all around the circle.
  7. Carefully transfer the pie pops onto baking pans lined with parchment paper. Brush them with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar if desired.
  8. Bake at 375 – 400 °F (190 °C) for about 15 minutes until golden.

Pie pop individual

Chocolate-espresso cream pie with KahlĂşa caramel sauce

Nothing is perfect. Life is messy, and sometimes it pins us against the wall so bad we can hardly breathe. Buried under all those have to’s, need to’s, and shoulds we lose sense of where we’re going and how we want to be in the world. Exhausted, we’d give our right arm for just a little more sleep, and don’t have the energy to think what should change or what to do to actually make it happen. We switch to survival mode, just trying to make it today: Morning coffee – I need to be here – you need to be there – here, sign this – can you pick up the dry cleaning? – the fridge broke – the kid doesn’t understand equations – I’ll be working late tonight. And days turn into weeks.

Life is about relationships, and relationships are tricky. They take time and effort – a lot of it. Despite what Facebook wisdom would like  you to believe, you can’t have a relationship conducted via likes, e-mail, and text messages. It is built on communication, and if that’s missing, it all goes sideways. And it doesn’t matter if you wanted it to or if it was the last thing you wanted to happen. The important thing is that it did. And then one morning, hastily sipping your lukewarm coffee you realize that maybe you don’t even really know this person you’re supposed to do life with anymore. What does he want? And what, if anything, does he want from you? And what is it that you want?

And so not knowing what to do exactly, you decide to set out for a journey. Leaving all those shoulds and need to’s behind, you drive away, just the two of you. Down the interstate, down the memory line. Talking, listening. Searching for what was, what is, what could have been and what could be. And at the end you’re in this tiny town just steps from the ocean, listening to sea lions, and sharing the most delicious chocolate pie together. Leaning against each other, elbows touching, you savor every bite of this dreamy coffee-caramel-chocolate delicacy, and cherish every second of the newfound connection. And deep down, you feel relieved. You’re still there, underneath it all. All is well with the world.

*****

Still sitting at that cozy bistro I started pondering how to recreate that cream pie at home. It had a very moist crust and I wanted to keep that moistness – many  tart shells can be dry and mealy, which I wanted to avoid. Some time ago I started experimenting with raw desserts that often rely on combination of nuts and dates for the crust. It seemed like an obvious choice for this pie – medjool dates are soft and juicy even when dried, and have a sweet caramel taste which goes well with the sauce drizzled on top of the pie. I combined the dates with pecans this time, because they’re my favorite, but any type of nut would work beautifully, and I threw in a handful of oats, to soak up some of the greasiness of the nuts. Three ingredients, pulsed together in a food processor, and voilĂ ! In just seconds I had a “dough” that was easy to roll out between two sheets of parchment, and made a very versatile crust with no need to prebake, no added sugar, and no flour, so that even folks with allergies can enjoy it. A definite winner in my book!  Into the crust then goes a smooth filling of dark chocolate ganache with subtle coffee undertones. We could just stop here – the combination of roasted pecans, velvety chocolate, and coffee is deeply satisfying as it is. With the drizzle of boozy KahlĂşa caramel sauce this dessert will send you right into a food coma. Be sure to cut it into tiny slices – it is very rich, so a small piece goes a long way.

Grab a fork, sit back and enjoy the moment. It is sweet moments like this that make life delicious.

Chocolate espresso cream pie

 Chocolate-espresso cream pie with Kahlúa caramel sauce

Crust:
  • 2 cups pecans (dry-roasted or raw)
  • 2 cups medjool dates
  • ÂĽ cup oats (if you’re making the pie for gluten-intolerant, make sure the oats are gluten-free)
Chocolate-espresso ganache:
  • 9 oz. (250 g) bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 9 oz. (250 g) semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 1 Âľ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 oz. (56 g) unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee powder
  • ÂĽ cup powdered sugar
KahlĂşa caramel sauce:
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
  • ½ cup KahlĂşa
  • pinch of salt
Method:
  1. Lightly grease a 9 – 10 inch pie or tart pan with removable bottom.
  2. Process the dates in a food processor to a paste; remove and set aside. Pulse nuts and oats together until coarse meal forms. Gradually add date paste and pulse until the mixture forms a ball (be careful not to overprocess the nuts).
  3. Roll the dough between two sheets of parchment paper to a circle that is a little bit bigger than your pan. Chill the rolled-out dough for about 20 minutes so that the crust is easier to handle, and then ease the crust into a pan. (Alternatively, you can just press the dough into a pan – it is very sticky and holds together well.) Chill the crust while you prepare the filling.
  4. To make chocolate-espresso ganache: Put the chocolate into a bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream with butter until hot (do not boil). Take it off the heat and stir in the coffee. Pour the hot cream-coffee mixture over the chocolate in a bowl, and let stand for 2 – 3 minutes until the chocolate melts. Stir until well combined, and then add the powdered sugar and whisk with a wire whisk until smooth. Let cool slightly.
  5. Pour the ganache into a crust, smooth out the top and chill for at least 2 hours.
  6. To make the KahlĂşa caramel sauce: In a non-stick pan, heat the sugar with couple tablespoons of water. Don’t stir, just let it bubble until most of the water evaporates. When the sugar starts to turn golden around the edges, stir it gently with a spatula until it caramelizes and turns nice golden brown. (Watch it closely, caramel burns quickly!)
  7. Turn down the heat and gradually add the diced butter, stirring constantly. The mixture will sizzle. Keep stirring until all the butter pieces melt and the mixture is homogeneous.
  8. Lastly, add the KahlĂşa. The mixture will bubble up again. Just keep stirring until all the ingredients are well combined.
  9. Take off the heat and stir in the salt. Let the caramel sauce cool slightly before drizzling it over the cake. Store it in the refrigerator and warm it up again before use.

Chocolate espresso cream pie slice

Traditional pierogi with bryndza sheep cheese

Food doesn’t play just a practical role of feeding and building up our bodies. As it happens, very often we turn to it to seek comfort as well. Even though we may not always like it, food and emotions are closely intertwined, and you find this to be even more true when you live abroad. Many times I am so homesick I (could) cry, and I want nothing more than to hop on a plane right now to go hug the people I left on the other side of the world, visit familiar places, and eat the food I grew up with. But since I live in the real world, and don’t have thousands of dollars to offer to the airlines every month, what’s a girl to do? I walk into the kitchen and whip up some real Slovak food. I sit down at the table with my three Slovak men, we eat and laugh, and I feel somewhat better. Never underestimate the therapeutic potential of a good grub.

Pierogi (pirohy in Slovak) are crescent-shaped dumplings of unleavened dough, stuffed with various sweet and savory fillings. They are popular all over the Central and Eastern Europe and can be boiled, baked or even fried. The form pirohy is plural; the singular piroh is rarely used, since the meal consists of several pieces, and you’d never be able to eat just one 🙂 This savory version is filled with typical Slovak sheep cheese called bryndza, and topped with fried bacon, onion, and sour cream. It is a traditional Slovak dish,  and along with a similar dish of small gnocchi mixed with bryndza, is served in pretty much every Slovak restaurant. Finding bryndza in my neck of the woods can be somewhat of a challenge, though. Some Russian stores might carry it from time to time, but it’s not a regular thing, and since I can’t keep sheep in my backyard, I – again – had to adapt. (It seems the life of an expat is all about adapting, all the time!) Lucky for me, the crumbly and tangy bryndza is rather similar to Greek feta, which is readily available at stores around here, and when I mix in a little sour cream to make it creamier, the taste is pretty close. The dough for pierogi is pretty simple and consists of only flour, water, egg, some grated cooked potato and salt. It is rolled thin and cut into circles. The filling of bryndza, potato, and chopped dill is placed in the center, and the dough is folded over to form little crescents. The pierogi are then  boiled in salted water, drained, and topped with bacon and onion. They’re best served right away, still piping hot.

Cooking well doesn’t always mean cooking fancy, and sometimes the best eats are quite simple. A plate of pierogi is a great example of that. So please, gather some friends and cook, and then go on and indulge. Smother those babies in (full fat) sour cream, and don’t forget to fry up some bacon! Life is short, and sharing delicious food with those you love is one of its very best experiences. Because really, food isn’t just a mere fuel to keep us going. Made and shared with love, it feeds our soul.

Pierogi

 Traditional pierogi with sheep cheese

Dough for pierogi:
  • 150 g (5.5 oz.) yellow potatoes, boiled in their skin, then peeled and chilled
  • 500 g (1 lb.) all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ – 2/3 cups hot water, as needed
Filling:
  • 400 g (14 oz.) yellow potatoes, boiled in their skin, then peeled and chilled
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) bryndza or crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 – 2 tablespoon fresh dill, minced
Method:
  1. To make the dough: Grate the potatoes, or run them through a potato ricer directly into a big bowl. Add in all other ingredients for the dough except water. Gradually add hot water until the ingredients start to form a ball. Knead the dough, until it changes from rough and floury to smooth and silky. (Alternatively, you can make the dough in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.)
  2. To make the filling: In a food processor, combine all the ingredients to make a uniform mixture. Chill the filling while you prepare the pierogi.
  3. Divide your dough ball in half and keep one half covered while you work on the first batch. On a floured surface, roll the dough thin (1/8 – 1/10 inch, 2 – 3 mm). With a biscuit cutter or a glass, cut out small circles (I used a glass with 8cm or 3.5 inch diameter). Sprinkle more flour on the work surface as needed to keep the circles from sticking (the potato dough becomes more sticky with time). Re-roll the remaining dough to make more circles.
  4. Place about ¾ tablespoon of filling in the center of each circle, and moisten the edges with water.  Fold the circle in half to make a crescent, press the edges with a fork to seal.
  5. In the same way, make the pierogi from the other half of the dough.
  6. In a big pot bring water with a tablespoon of salt to a boil. Working in batches, add about 10 pieces of pierogi, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook the pierogi for 1 – 2 minutes until they float to the top and are tender. Remove the pierogi with a slotted spoon and brush them with butter to keep them from sticking.
  7. Serve hot with sour cream, fried bacon, and fried onions (or minced spring onions).
 Note:

Recipe makes about 45 pierogi. You can flash freeze uncooked pierogi on a baking sheet, and then keep them in a Ziploc bag to cook as needed.