The Menu Notes blog is starting up again - although we no longer have a weekly takeout menu to write about, the Hel's Kitchen kitchen (which is now Helen's regular kitchen + a catering license) is still developing recipes for catering, pie contests, and a Particularly Brilliant Cookbook Proposal. And so we're back to posting Menu Notes. . .
Every year I enter the Adamant Blackfly Pie Contest, a contest in which a panel of esteemed judges score pies on both taste and homage to the blackfly. Turns out, there are endless ways in which you may pay homage to the blackfly. It also turns out that if you make a double crusted pie and fill it with rice pudding and call it "Baby Fly Pie" the judges think that's "gross". Now that I'm on the organizing committee and have a say in which judges participate, maybe I should give that approach another go, because it tasted quite good in the end.
Every year that I enter the Blackfly Pie contest I learn something. Usually it's something like how I shouldn't try to make buttercream roses in 90-degree heat (that was three years ago), or that the world is Totally Unfair (that's when I lost two years ago and it was Totally Unfair). Last year I made an apple pie using a technique someone told me at a dinner party: you toss the apples you're going to fill the pie with and sugar, then put them in a colander over a bowl for 30 minutes. A lot of sugary syrup drains off and then you simmer that syrup with aromatics (like ginger root, orange peel, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, rosemary, sage, etc. - I happen to be someone who likes savory herbs in with my sweets). Then you take the flavorful syrup, re-toss it all, and finish your pie. Very good flavor there.
This year I learned something even better: Scotch filled strawberries. My pie entry was the Scottish pastry "Fly Cemetery" - chosen for obvious reasons. But the Scottish fly cemetery is raisins and currants sandwiched between puff pastry and that didn't seem interesting enough. I boosted the raisins by soaking them in Scotch, and I added cream and egg yolks to the filling too, to make it more rich. I also used the King Arthur Flour simple (some could say "cheater's") homemade puff pastry recipe, instead of storebought (some could say "totally cheating cheater's") pastry. But that didn't seem like enough interest either, so I decided to cover the top of the pastry with Scottish Shortbread pieces and Strawberries filled with Scotch panna cotta.
To make this strawberry garnish, take a pile of strawberries and cut their tips flat (they're surprisingly stable) then with a paring knife cut the stem side off and hollow them out, being careful not to cut through to the other side. This step isn't as miserable as it seems like it would be - easier than pitting cherries. Set the strawberries you want to fill to stand up in a tin. The recipe below will fill around 2 pounds of strawberries - obviously there are a lot of variables in the volume of filling needed. Extra filling can go into Dixie cups to be Super Sophisticated versions of jell-o shots.
Now, for the filling, you need:
- 3/4 cup good quality heavy cream
- 1/4 cup Scotch, I recommend erring on the site of less-peat-y for this application, although smoky works well.
- 3 Tb sugar
- 1 scant tsp gelatin
In a mixing bowl, dissolve the gelatin in the Scotch, let stand at least 5 minutes. Warm the cream in a small saucepan with the sugar until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot (but not boiling). Stir the hot cream into the Scotch-Gelatin mix. Whisk to be sure there are no lumps at all. Let the mixture cool for 5 minutes, then spoon it into the prepared strawberries. Put them in the refrigerator to set, 1-2 hours.
Could you get the same effect by making Scotch panna cotta and then slicing strawberries on top? Maybe, but it won't be as much fun. Note that if you do make the panna cotta without filling any berries, you should increase the cream to 1 cup (because otherwise it's quite stiff - in both firmness and Scotch-ness).
Now, did this creation win? No, of course not. It did come in third, though. The winner involved miniature chocolate eclairs decorated to look like flies and flung via catapult at a chocolate-peanut butter-cheesecake pie. The second place winner involved a scene of a giant fly attacking a mosquito-net-draped sleeping victim played out in fondant, sugar, and ganache. Below are pictures from the day, plus last year's winner (a diorama of the life cycle of a fly) and the pie of mine that did win a few years back (rose garden pie).