strawberry balsamic pie

Dear Howard,

I finally joined the Food52 Baking Club on facebook. Why? Because they were using The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book for the month of July and it’s a cookbook that we actually own! It was so nice to see a forum where everyone was baking from the same recipes and sharing success stories and handing out tips where things didn’t work.

With all the strawberries in stores these days, I wanted to give the Strawberry Balsamic Pie a try. I was intrigued by the combination of sweet strawberries with tart balsamic vinegar, plus the book says it’s one of their most popular pies in the shop.

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Strawberry Balsamic Pie
All-butter pie crust recipe adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book
Makes one 9-inch pie (double crust)

1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 teaspoons granulated sugar
½ pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ apple cider vinegar
1 cup cold water

  1. You can make the pie dough by hand, but I like to use my trusty food processor for its speed. Plus, it evenly distributes the butter into small specks among the flour.
  2. Add the sugar and salt into the food processor. Then cut up the cold butter and scatter them around the bowl. Pour in the flour and then pulse until the mixture is grainy and sandy looking.
  3. In a measuring cup, pour in the apple cider vinegar and cold water.
  4. Turn on the food processor again and through the opening, add 10 tablespoons of the apple cider vinegar and water mixture.
  5. The dough should come together nicely and feel a little (a tiny bit) tacky or sticky. I prefer the dough this way because additional flour gets added during the rolling process.
  6. Divide the dough into two flat discs and wrap with plastic. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 2 hours.
  7. Take one of the discs out to roll out to make the pie shell. Keep refrigerated as you prepare the pie filling.

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Pie Filling
Filling recipe adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book
Makes enough for one 9-inch pie

¼ cup + 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 pounds fresh strawberries, diced (5 to 6 cups)
1 small ambrosia apple
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
¾ packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 grinds fresh black pepper
½ teaspoon salt

  1. First thing to note, I omitted the Angostura bitters and ground arrowroot (used cornstarch instead) from the original recipe.
  2. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of sugar over the diced strawberries and let it macerate at room temperature. I left it out for 2 hours.
  3. Peel the apple and then grate it it. Drain the strawberries from their excess juices and combine with the shredded apples. Mix in the balsamic vinegar.
  4. In another bowl, mix the ¼ cup of sugar, brown sugar, cornstarch, black pepper, and salt together. Add this sugar mixture to the strawberry and apples. Pour it into the pie shell. Refrigerate as you work on the lattice top.

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Pie Assembly Time

Unsalted butter
1 large egg, whisked
Brown Demerara sugar (I didn’t have, so my photos are missing this)

  1. This is also a good time to start preheating your oven to 425°F, make sure to position the oven racks to the bottom and center positions. Butter the pie pan and chill in the fridge.
  2. Again, dust a flat surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll the dough out and cut them into strips or whatever shaped design you’d like.
  3. To make the border, roll in all the excess dough hanging off the edge. You’ll soon have a nice thick circumference that can be crimped into a wave. Again, if the dough starts to feel warm, pop it back in the fridge, especially if your oven hasn’t finished preheating yet!
  4. Once your oven indicates that it’s ready, take the pie out of the fridge. Scramble the egg in a small bowl and brush it over the dough. Careful not to draw out any of the strawberry filling if your lattice top has huge gaps.
  5. Then sprinkle the Demerara sugar on top, it should stick to the egg wash.
  6. Place the pie on a baking sheet on the lowest rack of the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
  7. Lower the oven temperature to 375°F and move the pie on the baking sheet to the center oven rack. Continue to bake for 30 to 35 minutes. The pie is ready when the crust is golden brown and the juices are bubbling.
  8. Take the pie out and let it cool on a wire rack for 2 to 3 hours. Serve at room temperature. The pie will keep refrigerated for 3 days or at room temperature for 2 days.

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Despite letting the strawberries sit for two hours, a bunch of juice bubbled out of this pie. Luckily the border was high enough that nothing spilled onto the baking sheet or oven. This smelled so good, it was really hard waiting the couple of hours for the pie to cool and set.

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It was of course worth the wait. I served it without mentioning the balsamic to see if anyone would pick up on it. It’s pretty subtle, but I think I like this sweet and savoury combination because it doesn’t scream balsamic vinegar. Looking forward to the next strawberry season when I can buy bushel of strawberries for this pie!

Sincerely,
Syl

shakshouka

Dear Laura,

Oh geez, I thought I had published this letter. How many months has it been now? We’re in the sweltering heat of the long weekend when I made this shakshouka after that winter storm at your place. And now, you’re making it again with homemade bread and fresh herbs from your garden for brunch this weekend. Regardless, thank you for introducing my newbie taste-buds to this delicious dish.

Shakshouka (North African-Style)
Recipe from Serious Eats
Makes enough to serve 4-6.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 large red pepper, thinly sliced
1 small jalapeño, thinly sliced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 ½ tablespoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin seed
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed
Salt and pepper
Large handful minced cilantro, parsley, or a mix
4-6 eggs (depends on how many eggs each person wants)
Feta cheese (crumbled) and crusty bread (toasted), for serving

  1. Choose your vessel, we’ve made it in both a cast iron skillet and a straight-side sauté pan. Heat the olive oil until it’s shimmering. Then add the onion, red pepper, and chili and cook until they’re browned and starting to char.
  2. Add the garlic, paprika, cumin, and tomatoes. Reduce the heat and let the dish simmer for about 10 minutes. Seriously, if you can make pasta sauce, you can make this sauce.
  3. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add in half the cilantro or parsley.
  4. Egg time! Using a large spoon and make little wells in the sauce. Break an egg into the well and cover the edges with a little bit of sauce so that it’s partially submerged. Repeat with the rest of the eggs, work around the perimeter of the pan. Simmer until the egg whites are cooked and the yolks are still runny.
  5. Take it off the heat to serve and garnish with the remaining cilantro, parsley, and feta cheese.

Shakshuka

Love how easy and hearty this is!

Sincerely,
Syl

matcha dusted fudge brownies

Dear Sam,

Huzzah! It feels like Easter was many moons ago as I am very late in writing this post. I was like, who could I write this to? and you popped into my mind because you finally gave in and had chocolate just because I made these. To that, I am humbled and I also commend you on going 39 days without chocolate. That’s not an easy task. Even just today, I was poking around my kitchen looking for something chocolate to nibble on. I eventually gave in and opened my second box of Daim cake. And just to be clear, I would have made them again after Easter so you could have some!

These brownies are so addictive, but it was seeing a photo of the glossy and crinkly top that drew me into the recipe in the first place. Stella Parks is a dessert genius. If she’s reading this, I would love to know how to swirl the matcha onto the top (and just the top) of the brownie. Would it still achieve that glossy film?

Glossy Fudge Brownies
Recipe adapted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts
Makes enough to fill a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan

1 cup all-purpose flour
1⅓ cup cocoa powder
3 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (the original recipe calls for dark chocolate bars, chopped)
2¼ cup white suguar
¼ cup brown sugar
1¾ teaspoons salt
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extra
(The original recipe also calls for instant espresso powder here, but it’s optional, and I didn’t have any.)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a 9 x 13 x 2 inch baking pan with foil so that the bottom and sides are covered.
  2. In a pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. I dabbed a little of the melted butter with a brush to grease the foil in the pan. Increase the heat to medium and let the butter simmer until the butter is golden yellow and silent (there’s a lot of hissing and popping during the process).
  3. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the chocolate chips.
  4. Sift the flour and cocoa powder together.
  5. Using a stand mixer, whisk the white sugar, brown sugar, salt, eggs, and vanilla extract. Run it on medium-high until the mixture is thick and fluffy (about 8 minutes).
  6. Reduce the stand mixer speed to low and pour in the warm chocolate-butter mixture. Once it’s combined and you don’t see anymore streaks, add in the sifted flour and cocoa powder. Mix on low until the batter comes together. Be careful not to over mix here. Use a spatula to help fold if you think the stand mixer might be too heavy handed.
  7. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for about 25 minutes. The brownies should have a glossy film and still be soft to the touch.
  8. Here’s the hard part, wait. Let it sit and cool. It’ll be too gooey to slice if you don’t wait.
  9. Gently tug and lift the foil out of the pan. Cut the brownie into squares (or triangles). Store in an airtight container with wax paper between each layer. It’ll last for a week in room temperature. I also froze some to be mixed in with ice cream sundaes in the future.

Chocolate Brownies

Stirring the melted butter and chocolate together.

Chocolate Brownies

Sifting the flour and cocoa powder!

Chocolate Brownies

Pour that luxurious batter into the baking pan.

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Finally, it’s cool and ready to be sliced.

Chocolate Brownies

Oh my gosh, look at the center where it’s nice and dark. This is one moist and delicious brownie.

Liza, if you’re reading this, it’s time to look away.

Chocolate Brownies

Dusted some matcha powder on the top of my brownie square.

Chocolate Brownies

Yaasss! So ready to dig in.

Chocolate Brownies

The first bite, get in my belly!

Chocolate Brownies

Time for a second bite.

Sincerely,
Syl

pork dumplings

Dear Tara,

We’re almost at the weekend, just hang in there! Will this be the weekend where you can start planning parts of your trip to Taiwan? If so, I hope this helps as a very rough guide as I cannot claim to be a travel expert.

Let me think back . . . we went in mid-February and I found it shockingly cold. I thought going from Toronto to Taipei meant warmer weather for me. But it’s a cold that seeps into your bone there, a deep kind of cold. So wear plenty of light layers and pack a jacket and accessories. This might reveal my delicate health, but I needed the hat, scarf, and hand warmers when we were outdoors. You can find Japanese hand warmers in convenience stores there where they only heat up when you magically open the packaging and they last for 24 hours. I found these so nice and toasty that I bought some back to Canada with me! However, it’s supposed to be much warmer in March as their spring season officially begins.

If your travels take you south to Kaohsiung City, then you should definitely be prepared with mosquito repellents and insect-bite relief as the mosquitoes come out to feast at night. This is where wearing layers should help, they can’t bite you if they can’t reach you!

Of course, Taiwan is famous for its night markets so that’s a must visit. There are plenty around the major cities and we strolled through many of them after dinner. You could visit a different one every night and not be able to explore them all. Shilin Night Market is probably the largest one and you’ll find tightly packed stalls of street food, games, and merchandise for sale. You snake through in single file and look for the stalls with the longest lines to join. Roam around to take in the sights and smells, but keep your belongings close to you and be aware of your surroundings. Our relatives warned us many times to keep our wallets and phone safely in front of us.

What should you eat? Well, there’s the famous Taiwanese stinky tofu, which I actually didn’t find all that stinky there (it’s more pungent here in Toronto). They make it much better in Taiwan and the savory flavours are worth a try. There’s a ton of fried food at the night market, almost anything you can imagine. I would highly recommend fried chicken as a late night snack. There are stalls with baos and oyster omelettes made fresh to order. Waffles batter poured in the weirdly shaped cast irons. There’s this particular dessert that is quite wonderful – it’s a crêpe filled with peanut butter brittle, ice cream, and cilantro. This might sound weird but it’s surprisingly delightful! You can also get a bowl of sweet potatoes that are covered in a syrupy glaze that warms your soul as the night gets colder.

Outside of the night market, you can’t skip Din Tai Fung. Their soup dumplings alone are worth it. Go in a group so you can order multiple steam baskets of dumplings to try. I found their hot and sour soup to be the best I’ve ever had because it’s incredibly silky from the tofu. Try the braised beef noodle soup!

Let me interject here with my very own dumplings. I made these without my mom’s help for the first time. However, the wrappers were store bought and not homemade.

Pork Dumplings

Dollar Dumplings
Recipe adapted from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes
Makes about 50 dumplings

1 lb ground pork
¼ cup minced scallions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon white pepper
1 lb pre-made round dumpling wrappers

  1. First of all, the original recipe called for a tablespoon of minced ginger which I omitted because Howard thinks I’m too heavy handed when it comes to ginger (it’s true, I probably would have put in two tablespoons). Ok, now that that’s out of way, here are the very easy steps.
  2. Mix the pork, scallions, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, cornstarch, sugar, sesame oil, and white pepper together in a bowl. Take the dumpling wrappers out of the fridge and packaging. Set aside a small bowl of water.
  3. Using a spoon, fill a dumpling wrapper with about one tablespoon of filling.
  4. Dip a finger into the water and moisten the edge of the wrapper – half a circle will do, you don’t have to go all around. Fold the dumpling in half and pinch it from the filling out to get rid of any air bubbles. Seal the edges tightly and crimp to secure.
  5. Repeat until all the dumplings are completed. Choose one of the two methods below to cook them.
  6. Boil: Fill a large pot with water and boil on high heat. Place the dumplings in the pot in batches (don’t crowd it). They will start to float around 3 to 4 minutes. That’s when they’re done, remove with a slotted spoon.
  7. Pan-fried: Arrange the dumplings (pleats up) on a cast iron pan until it covers the surface. Pour in neutral oil (I used grapeseed oil) to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat over medium until the oil starts to sizzle. Then pour in ¼ cup of water and cover it with a lid. The steam will cook the dumplings in about 3 to 4 minutes. You’ll end up with a nice golden crust on the bottom of the dumpling.
  8. Dip in a soy sauce and rice vinegar mixture and enjoy!

 

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Pork Dumplings

Taiwan is also a city full of hot pot restaurants. While it’s usually a shared experience here in Toronto, you get your own individual pot there. It’s definitely worth trying your hand at cooking your own food with fresh seafood. Japanese restaurants are also a must stop since the seafood is so abundant – you’ll see lots of conveyor belt sushi there, go for the fun or pick a more traditional restaurant.

Then there’s the famous shaved ice. We went to Smoothie House for their mango shaved ice, topped with a panna cotta and ice cream! Or there’s Ice Monster for a better sit down experience.

Go for a traditional breakfast where you can eat delicious buns, dough fritters, congee, and drink soy milk or wintermelon iced tea.

Taiwan is filled with amazing bakeries and cafes. Seriously, their pastry and bread game is on point. Wu Pao Chun Bakery is my absolute favourite. You should try their pineapple cakes, croissants, buns, and basically anything you can get your hands on when it’s your turn in line (yes, people line up for bread here). All my relatives know to bring me back a box of pineapple cakes from Wu Pao Chun when they visit Taiwan.

What else did we do? We visited Taitung County and Tamsui Old Street for some fresher air and ocean views. We were driven up winding roads to the top of the mountains to pay our respect to ancestors. We watched in envy as people zoomed by on scooters. We made sure to visit a 24-hour bookstore. You can even find a good meal at 7-Eleven, it’s more than a convenience store there, it does everything. People buy concert and train tickets, call taxis, pay bills, and even have the ready-to-eat food you buy prepared for you. I was very fond of this caramel egg pudding that I can’t find here and can’t quite replicate in recipes. Oh speaking of, I forgot to mention that every receipt you get in Taiwan is a lottery ticket. You can keep these or give them to relatives to redeem if the winning number shows up!

I do want to mention that sometimes it’s hard to find a clean washroom when you’re out and about or at a night market. Keep plenty of hand sanitizing wipes, napkins, and toilet paper in your bag. Some of the more rural places may have squat toilets instead of sitting ones. And what I found interesting was that some homes tile the entire bathroom because there are no bath tubs. They have a drain in the floor of the bathroom where the water goes when you shower next to the sink and toilet.

The subway system is very easy to use and clean, which reminds me there’s no food or drinks on the subway! There’s a line that clearly indicates where you’re no longer allowed to eat or drink in the station. Don’t sit on the designated priority seats on the subway either, you’ll get glances. And don’t lose any tokens or tickets, you’ll need it to enter and to leave the gates at the station.

I think that’s it. I don’t know if I’m missing any other observations! Practice your chopstick skills and I hope you’ll have a dumpling book when you come back.

Sincerely,
Syl

saffron, orange, and honey madeleines

Dear Laura,

It was so good to catch up last night! You picked a great day to come over, I’m sorry I stuffed you with pasta and madeleines and we didn’t have room for some waffles and ice cream. We’ll have to take a snow-check for those.

Howard’s parents gave me the little box of saffron – I remember Howard bringing it home and saying “my parents said you would know.” Because that felt like a challenge, I looked at the little clear box of spices and proudly said, “oh, saffron.” Winner!

I’ve never used saffron before and wasn’t even sure if we’ve ever tasted it out at restaurants, so I don’t know what the flavour profile is, it does smell really strong. I liked how you described it as “plastic-y.” I had these madeleine recipes bookmarked for a long time now, ever since I saw that I could finally use the saffron. The day before my parents gave me some oranges and I had bought pistachios from Costco, so there really was no excuse to not make these.

Saffron, Orange, and Honey Madeleines
Recipe from Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi
Makes about 20-22 large madeleines

90 grams unsalted butter, plus more, melted, for brushing
2 teaspoons plus 3 tablespoons honey
¼ teaspoon saffron threads (optional)
¼ vanilla bean
2 large eggs
⅓ cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2½ tablespoons shelled pistachio kernels

The recipe instructions are also online at Bon Appétit. So I’ll go over this in visuals:

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

Combine the butter, saffron threads, and honey in a saucepan.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

Cook on low heat until the butter and honey melt together. Give it a swirl or two. Then set it aside to cool to room temperature.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

Using a food processor this time, add in the eggs, sugar, orange zest, and vanilla seeds. Pulse until combined. Then add in the dry ingredients of flour, baking powder, and salt.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

Once combined, transfer it to a bowl or piping bag. Let the batter chill in the fridge for an hour.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

Melt some butter and brush it on the madeleine pans. Then dust it with flour.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

If you saved the batter in a bowl, you can use a spoon to scoop dollops into the pan’s mold. Or you can snip off the tip of the piping bag and start squeezing the batter into the pan.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

The oven temperature in the cookbook asked for 400°F for 10 minutes. However, when I was on Facebook, it was like the algorithms knew I was using the Sweet cookbook. I found out after that it was an error. It should be 375°F for 10 minutes! That’s why my madeleines were such a dark brown on the bottom!! Although Howard really enjoyed that extra crunch.

When they’re done baking, gently nudge the cakes out of the mold and transfer to a cooling rack. Then brush honey on top for that shiny glaze.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

The honey also helps the crushed pistachios stick to them.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

And there you have it! I might have ground the pistachio a bit too much into a crumble compared to the photo in the cookbook. But it’s still delicious. There’s only four left in my kitchen this morning.

Saffron Orange Honey Madeleines

I hope to see you soon and hear more about your house renovations. You know I love hearing about food, homes, and travel!

Sincerely,
Syl