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Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.
With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.
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Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.
In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.
Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.
But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?
The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.
- Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
- 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
- ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
- ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
- Sparkling sugar
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
- In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
- Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
- Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
- Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.
Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.
Having been raised under the shade of a sweet cherry tree, I always took great pride in asserting Michigan’s cherry dominance. It was not until researching this piece that I made a shocking discovery: Most sweet cherries are grown in the West. To be specific, Utah, California and Oregon.
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Next, I discovered that Utah also supported its sweet cherry stronghold by designating the cherry as its state fruit back in 1997. Meanwhile, Michigan is still trying to make up its mind about that subject. Proposed legislation designating a state fruit has been stalled in committee for more than a year, with heavy opposition from the blueberry contingent. Not only was my state not among the Top 3, it couldn’t even muster sufficient political muscle behind its homegrown sweet cherries. I never would have guessed that a simple story about a spicy cherry salsa would cause me such emotional upheaval.
Despite my disappointment in this news, I still am crazy about sweet cherries in June and July. I like to throw them on waffles in the morning, salads in the afternoon and start any party with a simple, kicked-up cherry salsa, especially if it’s an impromptu gathering and I’ve only got 15 minutes before running out the door. This light, fruity salsa is sure to disappear as fast as guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or cherry pie on the fourth of July. But that’s another story with a happier ending, because cherry pie uses tart cherries, and Michigan wins that contest hands down.
- 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
- ½ pound fresh or canned pineapple
- 1 jalapeño pepper
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper, or to taste
- ¼ cup parsley, minced
- Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
- This can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to marinate for up to three hours while the sweet and spicy flavors get to know each other. Serve with tortilla chips.
Main photo: Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Fungi foragers will always recall the first time they spied a morel popping up from a lush blanket of white trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits covering forest floors in May. It might be a bit like the excitement that ’49ers felt during the California Gold Rush, when they panned streams for hours and came up with a single gleaming nugget. But while that gold is long gone, morel mushrooms continue to be the ultimate sustainable prize. Year after year, when the weather is moist enough and warm enough to wake them up, morel mushrooms grace the outdoors with edible treasure.
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Morels are richly flavored, nutty and earthy in taste and meaty in bite. Shaped like little bell caps with crinkly honeycomb bodies, morels are harvested commercially in Oregon, where most U.S. restaurants procure them, but only during a brief time in spring. Although morels can be found in the wild in heavily forested areas along both coasts, it is the Midwest that dominates spontaneous production, and Michigan is probably best known for delivering the goods.
Last May, I took my first hike in search of morels with the National Morel Mushroom Festival’s five-time champion, Anthony Williams of Boyne City, Mich. Williams is highly regarded for consistently finding mother lodes of morels, and mushroom fans say that he knows more about morels than almost anyone on the planet. And since locations that hold the most promise are often closely guarded family secrets passed down through generations, who better to guide my first foray into the forest in search of some shrooms?
Williams offers a few points of advice: Walk fast and cover a lot of ground. No point wasting time until you find the right spot. Keep your eyes up and looking out, not down at your feet. And don’t slow down until you spy something promising. Then start circling because where there’s one, chances are there’s more.”
“Make sure to pinch them off at the base of the stem between your finger and thumb,” he added. “Don’t pull them out by the root. You’ll be leaving spores for next year’s harvest.”
I was almost giddy with anticipation when we headed out on our first trek. Guided by dead and dying elm, ash and poplar trees that often provide the best environment for finding morels, we hurried past ankle-deep fields of wild leeks that most any chef would drool over. But after 2½ hours of hiking, we found not even a glimmer of a morel.
But after a three-hour trek the next day, we emerged victorious, with a small paper bag of treasure (Another of Williams’ rules: “Whatever you do, don’t store them in plastic”).
It was time to discover the best way to enjoy them.
I wanted the most popular recipe for morels to be exotic, something that would match the challenge of finding them. While Williams was happy to tell many long tales as we hiked along, the simplest story he shared was the family favorite for preparation.
“When I was little, the whole family would get up early on Sunday, pack a picnic and get out in the woods to gather morels,” he said. “At lunchtime, we’d take a break, unpack the camp stove, a giant cast iron skillet and a stick of butter.”
“The very best way to prepare morels is to simply pile the mushrooms in a pan of melted butter and cook them down a bit. Then sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and load them on a plate. After feasting on our finds, we’d head out for more.”
Important note about mushroom hunting
Because touching or eating the wrong kind of fungi can be deadly, it is important to know that mushroom hunting must be done with care. The best rule of thumb is not to touch anything unless you are sure you know what it is. If in doubt, leave it out. Many organizations in prime mushroom areas offer guided tours during the season, which are a great way to learn the safest method to identify, find and harvest mushrooms.
If you want to try your hand at unearthing some morels, you can join other like-minded hunters at the National Morel Festival held May 15 to 18 in Boyne City, Mich. You might get lucky – even without the “mushroom whisperer” at your side.
Sautéed Morel Mushrooms
There are plenty of restaurants that compete for Best of Show in the Taste of Morels competition during the National Morel Mushroom Festival held every May in Boyne City, Mich. To my good fortune, I sampled every one of more than a dozen different approaches last year, but most everyone at the festival, including the winning chefs, acknowledged that the longtime regional favorite is hard to improve upon.
1 pound fresh morel mushrooms
1 stick butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Clean the mushrooms by slicing them in half, inspect for bugs and gently brush away any dirt. Don’t rinse with water.
2. Heat a large heavy skillet until medium hot. Add a stick of butter. As soon as the butter has melted, add the mushrooms and sauté until slightly softened and just cooked through.
Morel mushrooms. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Among my most exciting food experiences, I count finding my first edible morel mushroom popping up from the forest floor, sitting down to a dinner reservation that took six months to get, hooking a yellowtail off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, and … discovering spring asparagus at the farmers market.
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Plus, springtime asparagus is easy. It does not need to be peeled. The stalks won’t take on a woody texture until later in the season. Its delicate flavor is easily overcome by spices or heavier fare, so it’s best to keep preparation minimal. The most common approach is to simply steam the stalks just enough to tenderize them and garnish with a touch of lemon to complement asparagus’ natural tang.
And this classic approach is just fine. But since asparagus is my No. 1 vegetable, I’m always on the lookout for new tricks to try with this short-seasoned favorite. Recently, I needed something I could put together quickly and take to a party, something that could work warm or room temperature, something I could transport and deliver ready to place on the table. That something became an asparagus mousse pie. Although admittedly rich, it’s as smooth and creamy as the best chocolate mousse but surprisingly light on the palate. And it’s so simple you should not feel compelled to explain yourself when accepting accolades.
Asparagus Mousse Pie
This mousse pie deserves your favorite pie crust recipe, but to speed up the prep time, it’s perfectly OK to resort to your best store-bought, frozen crust. Look for one made with real butter to best complement the filling.
A Vitamix blender, which cooks the custard as it blends, is essential to achieving the mousse-like texture of this pie. It also makes preparation a snap.
As fast as this recipe is, it’s also important to not get ahead of yourself. Make sure the pie crust is cool before turning on the blender. The first time I attempted this, the filling set up in the blender while waiting for the pie crust to bake. I was able to fold the custard into the pie, and it turned out tasty but pretty fluffy. I love this pie served warm, but have to admit that chilled leftovers were just as good, maybe better.
1 frozen pie crust (homemade or store-bought)
1 pound asparagus, medium-sized stalks
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus enough to coat tips
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup milk
2 scallions (green onions, white and green parts)
2 ounces shredded asiago cheese
2 ounces crumbled feta cheese
1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Remove pie shell from freezer, prick bottom with a fork, line with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or beans. Bake until the pie edges are lightly browned, approximately 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven, discard paper and pie weights and return to oven for 5 minutes until bottom is lightly browned and crisp. Remove from oven and let cool.
2. To prepare the asparagus for blanching, cut 3-inch tips from stalks and reserve. Rough chop remainder of asparagus. Place chopped stalks in a medium-sized pot of salted, boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of iced water to quickly stop the cooking, then drain. Add tips to same boiling water for less than 1 minute. Transfer to ice water, drain and set aside for garnish.
3. While the pie shell is cooling, add olive oil, eggs, salt, heavy cream, milk and blanched asparagus stalks to a high-speed blender (must be capable of generating frictional heat above 160 degrees).
4. Turn the blender on to its highest setting and process for 6 minutes until it becomes a thick and smooth mousse consistency. It will be fully cooked, but not fully set.
5. Prepare topping. Finely slice scallions. Cut asparagus tips in half (1½-inch length). Toss together, adding a bit of olive oil to moisten and ¼ teaspoon of course salt.
6. Reduce oven temperature to 375 F. Pour filling into the cooled, pre-baked pie crust. The mousse will start to set immediately. Cover with topping and sprinkle with grated asiago cheese and crumbled feta cheese. Place in oven for 18 to 20 minutes, until cheese is melted. If the pie crust edges are in danger of becoming too dark, protect with a simple tented foil collar. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve warm or room temperature.
Note: For those without an ultra high-speed blender, you can prepare this pie using a traditional custard pie approach. Blend the custard ingredients in a regular blender until it takes on a smooth consistency, pour the filling it into the pre-baked pie shell, and bake at 350 F for about 40 minutes, until the pie is set but still jiggles slightly in the center when tapped. It will provide the same flavor, but result in a custard-style thickness, unlike the fluffy texture of the speedier version.
Main photo: Asparagus Mousse Pie. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Using extra virgin olive oil in cake baking is not new. I’ve been doing it for years along with other health-minded folks. It imparts a rich, slightly herbal flavor to cookies, cakes and muffins that balances the inherent sweetness of my favorite recipes. And who’s kidding whom? It also makes me feel slightly more righteous and slightly less guilty. But when I opened the refrigerator and found the last of my favorite winter citrus and a container of crème fraîche ready for attention, it seemed only logical that these things belonged in a chocolate cake as well.
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There is another ingredient in this cake that is far less known but deserves to be in everyone’s pantry. It’s an extract originating from Italy called Fiori di Sicilia (translated to “flowers of Sicily”). When I want to add a bit of mystery to my baking, I grab this little vial and add a few precious drops to the batter. It is a powerful combination of vanilla, citrus and less-defined floral scents. If you’ve ever tasted a traditional panettone from Italy during the Christmas holidays, you will recognize the flavor in an instant. While vanilla extract is always useful to round out a mix of flavors, this heavenly tincture can do all that and more.
Blood Orange Chocolate Cake
You can use any type of orange to impart the tangy flavor that complements a good dark chocolate, but the flavor complexity of a blood orange, with its raspberry undertones, makes this cake particularly yummy.
1¾ cups pastry or cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons orange zest
½ cup dark cocoa powder
½ cup boiling water
1 cup sugar
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup crème fraîche
3 large eggs
½ cup orange juice
1 teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or Triple Sec liquor (optional)
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease a 9-by-5-inch baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and zest, and set aside.
2. Sift the cocoa powder into a separate bowl and add boiling water until it is the consistency of a thick, smooth and glossy paste. Let cool while preparing wet ingredients.
3. By machine or by hand, whisk together sugar, olive oil, crème fraiche and eggs until blended and smooth. Slowly incorporate orange juice, extract, liquor and cocoa. Finally, add dry ingredients until evenly mixed.
4. Pour batter into pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The cake is done when an inserted toothpick comes out with no wet batter clinging to it.
5. Dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with glaze created by mixing ¼ cup blood orange juice with powdered sugar until desired consistency. Garnish with fresh raspberries.
Top photo: Blood Orange Chocolate Cake. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
I am not one of the lucky ones who owns the original “Modernist Cuisine” 2,400-page, six-volume set that rocked the food world when it was released in 2011. With its new style of macro presentation, depth of detail, sheer heft and price, “Modernist Cuisine” was acknowledged by the best in the business to be a paradigm shift in cookbook publishing.
The initial work published by The Cooking Lab was the brainchild of Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer for Microsoft, aspiring photographer and insatiable food lover. Myhrvold focused his life passions on creating a body of work that would provide detailed written explanations and visuals that explored the chemistry behind cooking.
With the release of the abridged “Modernist Cuisine at Home” in 2012, I discovered an approachable way to learn the basics about modernist cuisine and, more important, fit it into my life in a practical way. This winter, the inspiration for my gluten-free mac ’n’ cheese came directly from applying a bit more science to the sauce.
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By Inkling Systems, 2013
By Nathan Myhrvold
Now, with the publications of Inkling’s digital app version of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” and the printed behemoth, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” Myhrvold’s team continues to expand the presentation of 21st century food publishing from a unique point of view.
Both new publications are riffs on the same theme, broadening their audience by narrowing the focus of the initial immense work. They invite photographers and iPad-toting foodies to learn about the unique blend of flavor and science that makes up the world of molecular gastronomy.
Modernist Cuisine at Home, e-Book Edition
I am a big fan of large printed published materials converted into iPad e-books by digital publisher Inkling. The publisher’s ability to merge printed materials with fully engaging videos and glowing photographic details brings “Modernist Cuisine at Home” to a new level of engagement and education. As a digital version, it’s even more interesting than the original printed medium and frankly, more fun. I can tap, swipe and click my way through any recipe in a kitchen-friendly iPad version with a bit more detail than the book.
The Photography of Modernist Cuisine
When I first cracked the cover, I was not sure whether I needed a much larger coffee table, a set of museum-quality white gloves or even one of those page-turning contraptions that the Library of Congress uses to showcase important documents one page at a time. Comparing this book to a museum exhibit, I’d vote for the value of being able to savor its breathtaking pages again and again. It’s a stunning inspirational feast for the eyes that encourages you to look at and think about ingredients in a completely different way — all without featuring a single recipe.
Poring over this book, I’m also encouraged to think about food photography differently. For the rapidly expanding universe of food photographers and iPhonographers, this stark homage to the ingredient through obsessive attention to detail gives permission to depart from the glistening food-porn and dreamy expressionism that blankets Pinterest boards and Instagram.
“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” may not motivate me to go into the kitchen, but it motivates me to pick up my camera and open the refrigerator. The iPad app of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” just makes me want to try everything when I do.
Top photo composite:
“Modernist Cuisine at Home.” Credit: Courtesy of Inkling Systems
“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.” Credit: Courtesy of The Cooking Lab