Category Archives: local color

Pie adventures

After taking a class on pies at Baking Arts and many months of trial-and-error, I’ve finally figured out how to make apple pie with the following characteristics:

- flaky, crispy top crust that shatters upon contact
- firm, golden bottom crust with slight doughiness/chewiness but no sogginess
- buttery crust with caramelized sugar
- oozy filling (not too watery, not overly thick/viscous)
- tender fruit that keeps its structure and bite
- correct sweet/savory balance (savory crust and just-sweet-enough filling)

It took me 10+ tries and lots of head-scratching while searching the internets to get this pie just right – here’s the recipe I’ve settled on. There’s no holiday or season that cannot be improved with apple pie. Dericious!

Also, note that the flaky pie dough recipe also works beautifully for savory pies; we used it for a chicken pot pie, and it was fantastic.

Jen Lee's Apple Pie

Two delicious apple pies baked in cake pans, cuz I’m cool like that.

Jen’s Apple Pie (adapted from Baking Arts)

Yield: 1 9″ diameter pie

1 recipe Flaky Pie Dough
2.5 pounds Granny Smith apples (about 5 apples)
1 cup granulated sugar
1.5 teaspoons cinnamon
1 pinch allspice
1/3 cup tapioca flour (sets clear and lets crisp apple flavor come through)
1 squeeze fresh lemon juice (do not omit this ingredient)

1 egg, 1 tablespoon heavy cream, and extra sugar for glazing crust

Cookie sheet
1 9″ diameter metal pie or cake pan

Preheat oven to 400F.

1) Mix sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and tapioca flour in a medium bowl to blend. Set aside.
2) Peel, core, and chop apples to thin, flat slices (approximately 32 slices per apple).
3) Place apple slices in a large bowl or pot. Pour boiling water or cider directly over top. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 10 minutes. Drain apples well and let sit in a colander in the sink, tossing occasionally until completely dry, another 10 minutes.
4) Toss apples with dry ingredients and lemon juice. Set aside.
5) Roll 1/2 pie dough to 1/8 inch thick. Place in bottom of 9″ metal pie pan. Trim outer edges to 1/2 inch over pan edges. Chill pie crust in the refrigerator.
6) Place apples in pie shell along with any accumulated juices. Roll top crust to 1/8 inch thick. Make vents for steam. Lay top crust over pie and trim top even with the bottom crust. Lightly pinch the two together. Crimp with a fork.
7) Freeze the pie for 15-20 minutes to set the butter in the crust and promote a flakier pie.
8) Whisk 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of heavy cream together. Brush top crust with the egg and heavy cream wash. Sprinkle with coarse sugar or granulated sugar.
9) Place pie on sheet pan, and place sheet pan on top of pizza stone on the bottom rack of the oven to promote browning of the bottom layer.
10) Bake in preheated 400F oven for 60-90 minutes. Rotate pie halfway through baking. Look for even browning and thick bubbling juices.
11) Cool on cooling rack at room temperature for at least 1 hour.

Flaky Pie Dough

Yields 1 double crust or 2 bottom crusts

2.5 cups All-Purpose Flour (12 ounces)
2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons sugar
6 ounces butter, chilled (1 1/2 sticks)
1/3 cup vegetable shortening or lard (makes pie tender and crisp; coats the gluten)
5 oz cold water + a bit more if needed

For best results on warm days, chill flour in a covered metal bowl for 30 minutes.

Place dry ingredients and shortening or lard in the bowl of a food processor and process for 15 seconds until it has the appearance of slightly damp sand. Add the butter in pieces (chop into 12 pieces first) and pulse in 1 second increments until butter is no larger than peas.

Turn mixture into a mixing bowl and drizzle in the water 1 tablespoon-full at a time, mixing after each addition. Add just enough additional water, if needed, to bind all the ingredients. (make sure there are no powdery bits. if you can see the bottom of the bowl cleanly, it’s ready. you want moistness, not sopping-ness. if the dough is slightly crumbly, push it together in the plastic wrap while you form it into a disk).

Form into two thick disks and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours before using. Can be frozen for several months double wrapped in plastic wrap.

Rolling and Forming

Lightly flour table and dough on both sides. Walk rolling pin over dough to help soften and flatten. Begin rolling dough, pivot dough frequently to keep dough’s round shape and to check for sticking. Dust with flour as required. Press edges together if they crack. Roll dough to 1/8″ thick.

Place dough into 9″ pan (prepared with a layer of shortening and dusted with flour). Allow dough to rest in bottom edges of pie tin. Trim dough 1/2″ past the edge of the pie tin. Chill and rest dough before filling and topping with second crust. If creating a single crust pie, fold overhanding edge under itself so dough is resting on the edge of the pie tin. Crimp edges of dough. For double crust pie, after placing second round of dough on top, trim top crust to 1/2 inch and fold the bottom and top edges of dough under and crimp.

Frozen dough: Defrost in fridge overnight or take it out; leave it on counter overnight, and throw it into the fridge for 30 minutes before using.

The God of Cake: an interview with Ryan, baker extraordinaire

I’m setting out to make the most delicious Rice Krispy Treats the world has ever tasted. You can follow my pursuits at Treatified.

Why am I doing this, you might ask. For one, Rice Krispy Treats were my go-to for birthday gifts throughout high school and college, where I’d melt the butter and marshmallows in a microwave in my dorm room (it’s a miracle I never started a fire). I’m well out of school, but why stop now?

I also find myself constantly inspired by people who are virtuosos of specific kinds of food – Eric Ehler of Seoul Patch, who is a master of Korean-American fusion cuisine, and my friend Ryan, who bakes the most amazingly delicious and visually stunning cakes out of anyone I know. Case in point:

Ryan's Hyperbole and a Half Cakes

Ryan baked these two cakes for my roommate Anita’s birthday and decorated them with depictions of characters from Anita’s favorite online comic, Hyperbole and a Half. I was floored. Not only were the cakes impeccably beautiful (and so perfectly suited to the birthday girl), they also tasted like heaven. One was a maple walnut cake, chewy and nutty, and the other was a spiced cake, soft and fragrant.

Read on to find out how this unlikely baker learned his craft, and how he manages to concoct such delightful sweets even though he’s diabetic.

Jen: What’s the first thing you ever baked?

Ryan: It was probably something boring like yellow cake with buttercream frosting.

Jen: Since I’m a baking newbie, I already have a question about the basics: What makes a yellow cake yellow?

Ryan: It’s a combination of having butter and egg yolk. It’s harder to make a white cake because there’s not as much butter or egg yolk. I’m not sure I’ve even made a white cake from scratch before; it’s a more complicated recipe.

Jen: Is cake mix completely foreign to you because you’ve always made your own cakes?

Ryan: A friend of mine actually baked something from a mix one day, and I was like, “This actually turned out pretty good and it was a lot simpler…why I am spending all this time baking my own cakes?” I still prefer to have something homemade from scratch, especially if it’s for someone else. I try to do the best that I can when baking for others.

Jen: How did you learn about the techniques and sciences of baking?

Ryan: It was a combination of my mom telling me these things because she’s been baking cakes for so long. But also, someone can tell you to do it this way, and you say, oh, that makes sense, I’ll try that. You don’t really know until you don’t do it, and the result isn’t good, for example, “I mixed it too much, and it turned out too dry.” Sometimes I learned things from my mom, and other times, I learned from some sort of mistake that I remembered to fix next time.

Jen: Was there ever a time when you had an epiphany about baking tools or techniques?

Ryan: One of the biggest things was when I realized how big of a difference having good quality cake pans had in baking a cake. I was never that picky to begin with; when I was five, having a little bit of a dome on top was fine. However, layered cakes would always turn out a little odd. I was really glad when I finally found some good pans (unangled edges without nonstick coating). It’s kind of a hassle, but once you make that mistake and the cake turns out over-domed, you remember to do it right next time.

Jen: That’s definitely a good lesson! So it sounds like what you learned about cake pans was more of a trial-and-error thing rather than something you read about or talked to someone about?

Ryan: It sounds like trial-and-error, but my mom really did have a lot of influence. It would be the kind of think where I’d try something, and then it wouldn’t turn out quite right, so I’d call my mom, and she’d say, “Oh yeah, that’s happened to me before, and this is what I did for it.” It was really a combination of the two. If it’s something I’ve never done before, I’ll call her up ahead of time to get a few basic tips from her. For example, the pork buns I made – I’d never actually made bread before, so about an hour before I started making the bread, I called her and asked her how to make the bread just right. My mom’s experience helps a lot and having confidence helps too.

Jen: How did you come with the idea for making pork buns?

Ryan: I was making a lot of egg tarts for a while, and then I started thinking…what else do I love about dim sum? Pork buns! It’s not sweet, but it’s still a baked good. Someday, I want to learn how to make all my favorite things from dim sum, and have a big dim sum party at my place sometime.

Jen: What else would be at this party?

Ryan: Wonton wrappers with various fillings. I haven’t gotten around to actually planning everything yet.

Jen: How do you find recipes for all these different items? When you look for a recipe, are there triggers for what will turn out well?

Ryan: I just search on Google, and it’s hard to say how I find what looks like it will be good. I think both the pork buns and the egg tarts are from someone’s blog. I find that there are lots of people who want to do what I’m doing, and usually if you find someone’s blog, they say “I searched all the web, and here’s the one I found that is better than all the rest.” This seems a lot more reputable than just a random recipe posted online somewhere.

Jen: That’s a really good point – it seems a lot more curated when it’s on someone’s blog.

Ryan: Right – you actually get someone’s opinion on a recipe.

Jen: How did your mom learn how to bake? Is this knowledge something that’s been passed down for many generations in your family?

Ryan: The impression that I got is just that my mom has been baking for at least as long as I’ve been alive. She’s had a lot of time; she’s even more adventurous than I am about trying new things, so she learned mostly on her own. She’d watch TV shows that taught her how to bake things.

Jen: Which TV shows?

Ryan: Both of us like watching “Good Eats” a lot. So when we’re talking about cooking something, we’ll both reference stuff we saw on “Good Eats.” And it’s great because it’s a scientific approach to cooking. She’ll watch other stuff too, like Martha Stewart.

Jen: Speaking of the scientific approach, do you think that your engineering background has shaped the way you bake at all? Or is your baking hobby completely separate from your career in engineering?

Ryan: I like to think that baking is more scientific than cooking, but still, I don’t think of it as an engineering, especially when it comes to frosting and finishing. It’s sort of a nice break for me to get away from tough problem solving. I’m sure there is some influence of engineering in it. I’ve baked cakes enough times, so it comes sort of naturally. My mind almost turns off a lot of times I’m doing it. I bake pretty much when I want to relax. Although cleaning up the mess at the end stresses me out, so in the end, I’m not sure how much it really relaxes me. I’m not a super clean, organized baker, but the result is usually good enough.

Jen: What about ovens? How do you control for different oven settings, and what’s the difference between a convection oven and a regular oven? I feel like the more I read about it, the more confused I become.

Ryan: I’ve never had a convection oven, but from what I understand, a convection oven always blows
hot air, so it keeps the air more consistent, and it tends to bake things faster, so I have no idea how to adjust to that.

In terms of regular ovens, I just use trial and error. In theory you’re supposed to be putting a thermometer in the oven. What do now is keep a pizza stone in the oven. The pizza stone absorbs a lot of heat. It helps maintain a consistent temperature in the oven; without it, the oven gets hot and turns off; gets hot again, and turns off. That tip actually came out of a cake decorating class I took last November.

Jen: Interesting! I had no idea that pizza stones could do that. Where did you take the cake decorating class?

Ryan: It was at Michael’s. I happened to walk in one day to buy a cake box, and I saw that there was an ad for a class. And it was actually a really fun class! It was once a week for four weeks. Every class was two hours. We started out with basic tips for making a cake; then, we frosted cookies, learned the basics of the making the first cake layer, and made frosting flowers. We got to design our own cakes on the last day. I made a cake with a panda holding a flower.

Jen: I have heard that you make amazing panda cake pops.

Ryan: Yes, that was something I did at some point. My friend started telling me about something called cake pops, and she really thought that I should try making some. I got a book, but I didn’t really like any of the ideas I saw in the book, so I just took some leftover cake that I had, and crumbled it up into balls. I really like pandas, which are easy – just different layers of white and dark colors. The hardest part about the whole thing was getting people to eat them, because no one wanted to bite into a cute panda.

Jen: That’s exactly how we felt about Anita’s Hyperbole and a Half cake too!

Ryan: I’ve learned really think I should stop putting cute things on cakes; people just don’t want to eat them. Eating a flower is different, but eating something that is staring at you is kind of sad.

Jen: Do you have a favorite cake to bake? Your go-to thing?

Ryan: I do. The problem with having a favorite cake is that I tend to make it more often, so I kind of make too much of it. There’s a recipe I got from my mom called the perfect chocolate cake. It’s an amazingly good three-layer chocolate cake with a whipped cream filling and a chocolate ganache frosting on the outside. It’s a cake that my parents had several times when I was growing up. When I first learned that I could make it, and it wasn’t too hard to make, I made it over and over again. It’s still good, but I’ve almost gotten tired of it.

Jen: Is there anything you’ve aspired to bake but you haven’t gotten around to it yet?

Ryan: The one thing that I haven’t been able to make quite yet is the amazingly good strawberry pie that my mom made when I was growing up. I’ve tried making strawberry pies, and they never turn out anywhere near as good as hers. I really wish I could…I can never get the crust right, I never have enough strawberries, the filling’s just not quite right…I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. But nothing ever seems to be as good as the one that my mom made. The crust in particular is really hard to get right. I just really need to visit my parents and get an idea of how to make a good crust. I think it’s a good technique worth having.

Jen: As a diabetic, how do you reconcile your dietary restrictions with your passion to bake sweet things?

Ryan: I use an insulin pump, which is a very flexible way to manage diabetes. So long as I have a rough idea of how many carbohydrates I’m consuming and how it affects my glucose, I can just adjust my insulin pump. It’s not nearly as much of an issue as one might think. It doesn’t really affect me that much.

Jen: Any pieces of advice for someone who’s just starting out?

Ryan: Be fearless! I think what holds me back the most is just being unsure of myself to the point that I don’t do it. I hesitate. It’s good know that you’re going to have mistakes. The results are usually good enough anyways.

Meals 129: Sunday in SF

Amita and Jenny at Biergarten in Hayes Valley

It was Amita’s last weekend in California before she goes back to work in Tokyo, so we spent the day noshing on San Francisco eats.

Pineapple muffins from Aperto in Potrero Hill

Brunch from Aperto in Potrero Hill: Pineapple muffins

Brunch from Aperto: Braised pork hash with potatoes, onions, peppers, and foccacia

Brunch from Aperto in Potrero Hill: Braised pork hash with fried eggs, potatoes, onions, peppers, and foccacia

Lemon bar from Pinkie's Bakery in SOMA of San Francisco

Midday dessert from Pinkie’s Bakery in SOMA: Lemon bar

Linner from Biergarten in Hayes Valley: Seeded pretzel, deviled eggs

Linner from Biergarten in Hayes Valley: Seeded pretzel, deviled eggs

Meals 108: Moveable Feast

Went to Moveable Feast, a food truck market, for lunch. Think Off the Grid in the South Bay, without the crowds or the pretension. Moveable Feast touts some of the most sought-after SF-based food trucks in addition to South Bay staples, and the lineup changes every week.

Props to my friend Joanna for her work as Moveable Feast’s Market Manager – can’t wait to eat what’s next!

This time, I chowed down on Curry Up Now, We Sushi, Treatbot, and Soulnese. Yum (duh). See for yourself below.

Breakfast: Wheat flakes cereal with dehydrated strawberries, soymilk

Breakfast: Wheat flakes with dehydrated strawberries cereal, soymilk

Wheel of Fire roll from We Sushi at Moveable Feast

Lunch from We Sushi at Moveable Feast: Wheel of Fire roll (spicy California roll topped with albacore tuna and jalapeño slices; lightly torched for a crispy sear)

Chicken Tikka Masala burrito from Curry Up Now

Lunch from Curry Up Now at Moveable Feast: Chicken tikka masala burrito

Fried egg roll filled with mac and cheese

Lunch from Soulnese at Moveable Feast: Mac N Roll (fried egg roll filled with macaroni and cheese, served with garlic ginger ranch sauce)

Hochata ice cream, peanut butter swirl ice cream

Midday dessert from Treatbot at Moveable Feast: Horchata and peanut butter swirl ice cream in a waffle cone

Cabbage-wrapped bulgogi

Dinner: Mom's cabbage-wrapped bulgogi with brown rice

Meals 104: Pho + flu

Woke up with the flu. Hibernated and ordered food from Tony and Alba’s via GrubHub. In the evening, Marshall brought me pho from Pho Garden. That psychic fool.

berry yogurt cereal

Breakfast: Wheat flake cereal with yogurt-covered berries and soymilk, vanilla Activia yogurt

Chicken marinara penne and minestrone soup from Tony and Alba's

Lunch delivered from Tony and Alba's: chicken marinara penne and minestrone soup

Pho from Pho Garden

Dinner from Pho Garden: Pho