Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nana's Apple Pie (The Last Apple Pie Recipe You'll Ever Need!)

There's a bit of a story behind the title of this post. You certainly don't have to read it. You can skip on ahead to the recipe instead and that's perfectly fine with me. You see, the "recipe" for this pie is not technically my own. It is my tried and tested interpretation of how I believe my grandmother (aka, Nana) made her apple pies. So, if you've decided that you want to learn the "behind the scenes" about the title of this post, then please read on.

My Nana (my dad's mom) made the best apple pie I've ever tasted. Honestly, there wasn't much that I can recall, that she didn't cook well. Her chicken and biscuits was to die for and her roast pork dinner with all of the "fixins", was just heavenly. Sadly, she was already quite elderly and had pretty much stopped making that type of "Sunday dinner" style food, by the time I was old enough to really take an interest in cooking. Although I never had the opportunity to sit in her kitchen and watch as she prepared those incredible meals, I did learn quite a bit from listening to my mother, aunts and cousins through the years, when they'd talk about what they had learned from her.

For instance... when I make chicken and dumplings, I cook my chicken the same way that Nana did when she made chicken and biscuits. I "fricassee" it, which is really just a fancy way of saying that I cook it low and slow. Instead of boiling it in water or broth, I pan fry or saute it over a medium low flame, until it's a rich (and tender) deep golden brown. Now, this method might take a little longer, but believe me... it's worth every second of any extra time that it takes and I honestly couldn't imagine cooking it any other way.

OK, what does chicken fricassee have to do with apple pie, you ask? Well, it's not so much about the dishes... it's about the woman who prepared them and it's about her cooking philosophy. She didn't use recipes and she didn't follow trends. She was the wife and mother of hard working, dairy farming men and she cooked the food that she knew would make her husband and three sons happy. Food that would keep them nourished and their stomachs full, as they worked all day and well into the night, to keep the family farm running. She cooked what they loved ...with love.

Her apple pie was no exception. My grandfather, my dad and his brothers liked their pie sweet and with lots of cinnamon and spices. Now, my Mom - God rest her - wasn't much of a baker, so she usually bought the "par-baked" Mrs. Smith's pies from the grocery store that you finished baking before serving. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing that.

But... (you knew that but was coming, right?) My Dad was a very picky eater. He was very much used to the way his mother cooked and I know he would have liked to see my mother follow in her mother-in-law's footsteps. He never openly shared his opinion about the store bought pies. He loved my mom and always appreciated what she did to keep the household running. He just wasn't one to openly criticize anyone. He did, however, have a, ahem... subtle way of making his feelings known about the pie.

He'd quietly go to the cupboard and get the sugar bowl and the cinnamon shaker. Then, when he got back to the table, he'd gently lift the top crust on the slice of pie on his plate and he'd sprinkle liberal amounts of both, all over the filling inside. When he was satisfied with the amount that he'd "enhanced" the pie's sweetness and the cinnamon content, he'd place the crust back on top and start eating his dessert. Of course my mother saw it, but she never got angry or upset about it. She never said a word at all. She knew that the last thing my Dad ever wanted to do was hurt her feelings. So, she'd just turn a blind eye and act as if nothing had happened and we'd all go on, happily eating our pie.

Anyone who knows me well, is aware that I was and always will be a bona fide, card carrying member of the DGS (Daddy's Girl Society). My Dad was (and still is) my hero, so when I started cooking in my early teens, the person who's praise I sought out the most and who I tried my hardest to make happy with the food that I cooked, was my Dad. So naturally, when I took on the challenge of making my first apple pie, I remembered that sugar bowl and cinnamon shaker and I set out to make an apple pie that my Dad would never need to quietly "doctor" up... ever again. What follows is the result of that mission - **with one little change.

I hope that you enjoy it, as much as he always did. :)

Nana's Apple Pie
(makes two 9 inch pies)
  • 10 Large Cortland, McIntosh or Empire Apples (I use a mixture)
  • 1 & 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar (yes, that's the right amount)
  • 1 & 1/2 Tbls Ground Cinnamon (yes, that's right too!)
  • 1/2 Tsp Ground Allspice
  • 1/4 Tsp Ground Ginger
  • 1/4 Tsp Grated Nutmeg (fresh, if you have it)
  • 1/8 Tsp Ground Cloves
  • 4 Tbls Butter, (one half stick - sliced/cubed into eighths)
  • 2 Pkgs of 2-count refrigerated pie crusts** (or your own homemade)
** When I have the time, I will make my own pie crust dough. But let's face it... at Thanksgiving time, I have so many other dishes to prepare, that I need every extra second I can spare. And after several years of stressing over it, I eventually turned to the refrigerated pie crusts. (sorry, Nana!) I always use the brand shown in the ingredients photo above, so I can't vouch for any of the others out there. But I can say that this one comes pretty darned close to the real deal and to be honest, I've never had a single complaint. Not even from my very picky, very vocal husband!

If you'd like to make your own pie crust, I use (and highly recommend) Martha Stewart's Pate Brisee recipe. It's tender and flaky and it's easy to make! You can find it by clicking HERE! Just remember that you'll need to double the recipe for two 9" double crust pies.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F.

OK, let's begin! Wash and peel your apples and set them aside. I always peel all of the apples first and then core and slice them. Once I get started, I'm pretty quick with this part of the process, but if you end up with a bit of oxidation (the browning that occurs when peeled apples are exposed to the air) it won't matter in the finished pies. You'll never see it once the cinnamon and other spices are added to the filling and the apples cook down in the pie.

I can't recall ever making apple pies with a single type of apple. I like to use a mixture of two, or even three, different apple varieties. We have dozens and dozens of wonderful orchards here in the Northeast and the predominant apple varieties that you'll find at roadside stands and in grocery stores here in upstate NY are generally Cortland, McIntosh and Empire, so it's usually a combination of those apples.

What you want are apples that are sweet, juicy and will cook down easily. Now, you don't want to end up with applesauce in your pie, (there is actually such a thing though) but if there's anything that drives me nuts, it's an apple pie with undercooked or chewy apples in it. I understand that this is a personal preference and you might like to have a bit of bite left to the apples in your finished pie, but if you want to recreate this exact recipe, I'd recommend you use a combination of the apple varieties that I mentioned in this post.

If you can't find these particular varieties where you live, just ask a local produce professional which apple varieties are native to your area and would be best for making pies and they'll let you know just what to look for.

I start by making four cuts around the perimeter of the apple, getting as close as I can to the core, without picking up bits of the seeds or hard membrane that exists around it. You'll know if you've cut too close to the core because you'll see and feel the rigid membrane when you lightly run your finger over the cut side. If you do feel it, just take a very sharp knife and scrape the area, until you no longer feel it there. It shouldn't take much.

After you have the "meat" of the apple off, you can either toss the cores in your compost pile or give them to someone who has one. Or, you can put them in your freezer in zip-top bags to be used at a later time to make fragrant "simmer-pots" that will make your house smell like you've been baking, even when you don't have time! The aroma of apples, mixed with whole spices and maybe a bit of citrus peel, placed in a pot of barely simmering water on your stove top, can be a lovely thing to experience throughout the Fall and Winter seasons! Ahhhh...

When the apple is peeled and the larger pieces removed, lay those pieces, cut side down, on your cutting board and slice them into 1/4 to 1/2 inch slices. They don't have to match exactly. You just want to keep them all relatively close to the same thickness.

Once all of the apples are sliced, place them in a large mixing bowl that has plenty of room to stir them without the apples flying out of the bowl. lol

*Before adding the sugar and spices to your apples, prepare your pie plates by adding the bottom crusts to each one, so they'll be all ready for the filling and the top crusts.*

Add your sugar, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and cloves and give it all a good toss, making sure that all of the apple slices are well coated with the mixture.

Yes... I really do use that much cinnamon! Trust me.... it makes a wonderful pie!

When the spices are stirred in, sprinkle your AP flour over the top as evenly as you can. I don't add the flour with the sugar and spices because I find it has a tendency to clump up that way. Trust me... you do not want any big chunks of dry flour in your pies.

Add the pinch of salt (1/4 tsp?) and stir it all again to incorporate the flour and salt evenly. You'll find as you're stirring, that the apples will begin to exude some of their juice. This is a good thing. A small amount of juice, mixed with the sugar and spices and the flour, will help the apples cook down and will create a nice thick coating of sweet, cinnamon-y goodness throughout your pies.

On the flip-side, too much juice can result in a very thin runny filling that will pool up in the pan when you cut it later for serving - plus it can make the crust soggy. Now, that just isn't good pie. The key to making sure this doesn't happen, is to not let the mixture sit for too long before adding the filling to the pans. Not more than a couple of minutes, really.

Quickly (and as evenly as possible) pour your apples into your two prepared pie plates, mounding the filling ever so slightly, then dot the tops of each pie with 1/2 each of the butter slices/cubes.

With the refrigerated crusts, there's usually just enough extra that hangs over a 9" pie plate for me to tuck the top crust underneath the bottom and then pinch them gently together to seal it all up.

I then use my left thumb, placed in between my right thumb and index finger to flute the edges.

(I couldn't hold a camera and do this at the same time, so in case you've never done this before, I found the photo below at Eating Well's website. It's a single crust pie, but it's the same technique. Mine never looks quite this perfect, but remember... practice doesn't always make perfect and that's OK! Hope it helps!)

Photo Source: Eating Well

Then, using a sharp knife, I poke a hole in the center and make 4 slices at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock, starting about 1/2 inch from the center hole and ending about 1/2 inch from the fluted edge. I then sometimes make shorter slits in between those. This is functional (by letting excess steam escape from the  filling) and it's also decorative.

Place the pies in your 425 degree preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes. I always put a sheet pan lined with foil on the bottom rack, to catch any juices that bubble over. Trust me... apple pie spillover is full of sugar and can be pretty nasty!

(Please excuse my very dirty oven - these photos were from last Thanksgiving and there had been 2 massive & very spattery - is that a word? - turkeys cooked in them just a short time before.)

Allow the pies to cool for at least 15 to 20 minutes before serving. This will allow the filling to set up a bit so that it doesn't run out all over the place when you cut a slice.

Slice up your pie as needed and serve on it's own - or with your favorite apple pie topping. Some like whipped cream, some like a big slice of cheddar cheese. Our absolute must around here is, hands down, a big scoop of vanilla ice cream!



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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Baked Ricotta Meatballs

Let's talk about meatballs for a moment, shall we?

I am a MAJOR meatball fanatic! So much so, that when we make up our huge batches of Sunday Gravy, I could easily skip the pasta altogether and just have a ginormous bowl of meatballs with sauce and some fresh, crusty Italian bread.

Mmmmm..... heavenly.

Well, until recently, if I was making any kind of meatballs, they were generally going into a big pot of red sauce, (Sunday Gravy) or I was making them as an appetizer... usually something like Swedish Meatballs, or what's referred to around here as "Jelly Meatballs". If you're over 30, I'm sure you've likely made these, or at least eaten them, at some point. It's a recipe that was popular waaay back in the late 80's, (I think) that uses a simple, yet addictively delicious sauce comprised of equal parts bottled chili sauce (my favorite is Heinz Chili Sauce) and grape jelly. I've heard them called many names. Some people refer to them as "sweet and sour meatballs", while others call them "barbecue meatballs" and I've also heard many people refer to them simply as "cocktail meatballs".

(Hmmm.... I don't think I've ever typed the word "meatballs" that many times in a row in my life! lol)

I've made ricotta meatballs in the past, but I'd never made them before this, with the sole intention of using them as a stand-alone dish. But, man oh man, am I ever happy that I did! Just seeing these photos again, is making my mouth water and has me seriously wishing that I wasn't still recuperating from a recent trip South to spend time with our new grandson.

Honestly... if I wasn't feeling so completely wiped out right now, I'd probably be in the kitchen, making a huge batch - and it's not even noon. Ha!

But, that's not why you're here right now, is it? You're reading this post to find out how to prepare ricotta meatballs. And right now, because I love you all so very much, I'm going to oblige.

Baked Ricotta Meatballs are basically regular meatballs, but with a little extra "sumpthin' sumpthin' "in the mix plus they're baked in separate individual portions. Or, if you wanted to, you could certainly make them in a large family sized casserole as a main dish. You can also add these to your Sunday Gravy for a traditional Spaghetti & Meatballs dinner. Either way, (obviously, this goes without saying) they both start with the recipe for the Ricotta Meatballs!

This might look a bit complex to those of you who are beginning cooks, but it's really not. Even though the ingredient list is a bit on the long side, I promise that once you have everything you need laid out, you can easily throw the ingredients together in about 15 minutes and have your meatballs ready to cook.

Baked Ricotta Meatballs
(makes about 2 dozen large meatballs)
  • 2 Lbs Meatloaf Mix (**see note)
  • 1 Lg Yellow Onion, very finely minced
  • 1/4 Cup Seasoned Dry Breadcrumbs
  • 3 Lg Eggs
  • 1 Cup Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
  • 1/4 Cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese (**see note)
  • 1/4 Cup Fresh Parsley, chopped
  • 1 Tsp Garlic and Herb or Italian Seasoning
  • 1 Tsp Dried Oregano
  • 1 Tsp Dried Basil
  • 1 Tsp Onion Powder
  • 1 Tsp Garlic Powder
  • 2 Tsps Salt
  • 1 Tsp Black Pepper
  • Extra Light Olive Oil (for frying)
  • 4 Cups Marinara Sauce
  • 1/2 Lb Mozzarella Cheese, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
** If you can't find meatloaf mix in your local grocery store, you can create your own by combining 1/3 lb each of ground beef, ground veal and ground pork for every pound of meatloaf mix that the recipe calls for. If you have cultural, religious or dietary issues or restrictions regarding one or more of these meats, you can certainly use any combination of the other two, or all one meat.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the 2 lbs of meat in a large mixing bowl.

Peel and quarter the onion and then mince it very finely. ( I would highly recommend using a food processor or a blender to do this) Add this to the mixing bowl. You want the onion to be as fine as you can get it, because it's raw going into the mix and big chunks of onion 1) make it more difficult to roll into a firm ball shape and 2) may not soften completely during the cooking process. I don't know about you, but I prefer not to bite into big chunks of semi-cooked onion in my meatballs.

Add the bread crumbs, eggs, onion and garlic powders, salt and the ricotta cheese to the bowl.

Mix these ingredients together loosely with a large heavy spoon or spatula. (Or you can always use your very clean hands)

If you don't have a garlic and herb seasoning blend like the one shown above, you can use any Italian seasoning blend combined 50/50 with a bit of extra garlic powder.

Add in your dried basil and oregano and your freshly chopped parsley.

Finely grate your Pecorino Romano and add it to the bowl.

**You can use Parmesan cheese if you don't have Romano on hand, but because a good Pecorino RRomano is made with sheep's milk, there's a subtle warm nuttiness that it brings to the overall flavor of the finished meatball. So, if you can get your hands on some good pecorino romano, I really do recommend it over the parm.

Mix all of the ingredients together well, making sure that you don't have any big "pockets" of one ingredient or another. Because meatloaf mix contains both veal and pork and also because the ricotta cheese is creamy and white, the overall mixture might look a bit more light in color than what you're used to seeing when using 100% ground beef. This is perfectly normal when using a soft (or fresh) cheese like ricotta. You can mix meat a little too much but you can also not mix it enough. You want a nice cohesive mix that holds together whe you roll them.

Cover the meat with a bit of cling film and put it in the refrigerator for about 15 to 20 minutes to firm up. (make sure to push the plastic wrap right down on top of the meat mixture, to prevent air getting to it - which can dry it out - while it's in the fridge chilling.)

Prepare a cookie sheet of large plastic cutting board by placing a big sheet of parchment or waxed paper on top. This will be the "landing pad" for your rough scoops of meat mixture before rolling the meatballs. It then becomes a good place to keep them "holding" as you're frying up each batch of meatballs.

Start by scooping them all roughly onto the parchment or waxed paper lined baking sheet. Once the sheet is full, roll each one into a classic meatball size and shape. I prefer to use an ice cream scoop to make more uniform sized meatballs. They cook more evenly in the same amount of time and are more aesthetically pleasing to the eye in the final dish. I use a #20 scoop, which holds a little over 2 ounces and I scrape it off flat on the edge of the bowl each time to keep them as uniform in size as possible. This ensures even cooking.

If you're making a double batch, you might need two cookie sheets, or you can fill the one sheet up, fry them all and then start the next wave of scooping and rolling once you've finished the first batch. If you are using the latter method, cover the mixture just as described above and put it in the fridge between uses.

If I'm making these specifically to add to my Sunday Gravy, I bake them in a 375 degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on their size. I do try to check and turn them once, right around the halfway mark. I then drop them into the sauce and even though they're cooked through at that point, they do cook a bit more in the sauce and become more tender in the process. But, when I'm making the individual meatball casseroles, I usually don't have as many to deal with, so I fry them in a pan with a little bit of light olive oil.

Since we are making these today as individual casseroles (or maybe putting them in a large baking dish for a buffet) and serving them as a hearty first course or as a main meal, we'll be frying them.

Pour about 2 tablespoons of a light or extra light olive oil (you can also use a vegetable, peanut or coconut oil) into a large heavy skillet, over a medium to medium high heat.

Fry the meatballs, turning every few minutes with a pair of tongs or a large spoon for a total of about 12 to 15 minutes. Make sure not to crowd the pan or they won't brown properly and will basically "stew" in their own natural juices. That would make them a bit tougher.

If you notice them getting brown too quickly, turn your heat down just a tiny bit and keep turning them to an uncooked, or less cooked side. You can usually tell how done they are, by the "feel" when you put light pressure on the top with your finger or with the utensil you're using to turn them. If there's no resistance at all, they're likely still raw in the center. If there is a firm, yet very slightly bouncy feel to them, they're pretty much cooked through.

Since they're going in the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes before serving, it's OK if they're a tiny bit uncooked in the center.

As they come out of the pan, place them on a large platter or clean cookie sheet, lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil or grease.

When all of the meatballs are finished, begin placing your desired amount in either individual serving dishes (like the one above) or into a large baking dish -I'm pretty sure that most people have a basic 13"x9"x2" Pyrex type of baking dish in their kitchen coffers, but if you don't, you can also use two pans. As long as they're oven proof, you're good to go. The important thing is to keep them in a single layer, since you're going to top each dish with yummy marinara sauce and slices of ooey-gooey mozzarella cheese.

For this specific dish, I prefer to buy the large balls of fresh mozzarella and slice it up myself, but if you're making a large casserole dish as a family serving, you can certainly buy the shredded style that's commonly used for pizza. A blend of shredded Italian cheeses would also work fine. It's really a personal taste thing.

You want to keep your mozzarella slices about 1/4 inch thick. If you slice it much more than that, they won't melt as nicely.

You can use your favorite store bought marinara sauce, or of course, if you have homemade sauce on hand, that's all the better! I had some in the freezer, so I just thawed it out by putting it in the fridge the night before.

Spoon enough marinara sauce over the top of the meatballs to cover them and also cover the bottom of the baking dish(es) that you're using.

I like to cut the slices into smaller pieces when I'm using the individual casserole dishes. It could just be my imagination, but I really feel like it melts more evenly and it doesn't hurt that each tender, juicy meatball gets it's own little "blanket" of gooey, melted cheese. What the heck... whether it's my imagination, or it actually makes sense scientifically, it works for me!

Cover each of the meatballs with the mozzarella slices and...

place the casserole dishes (or single pan, if that's what you're using) on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil, a silicone mat or parchment paper. You can use the pre-shredded mozzarella for this, but you won't get the creaminess that you do with this style. Think about your standard pizza, for instance. Shredded cheese gives you that great stringy, gooey effect that we all ooh and ahh over when we pull a slice from the pie... but for this kind of preparation, it's so much better to have a more creamy, gooey texture when you dig in with your fork.

Bake the casseroles in your preheated 350 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on whether your oven runs hotter or colder. If you've prepared these earlier in the day and refrigerated them, remove them from the fridge about half an hour before you plan to cook them. This will give them time to come up to room temperature.

Allow the meatballs to rest for about five minutes before serving. They can be served as an appetizer, a side dish with pasta, or as a main course. I like to serve them with a nice tossed green salad for a light, yet filling lunch or dinner. And they also make a great side dish alongside spaghetti (or any other kind of pasta) with marinara sauce!



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