Learning to Love Lard
Sunday was a big day. I pulled the wheeled cart out of the closet and hoofed it over to Columbia Pike farm market, where I'd pick up many of my Thanksgiving dinner items. In went the turkey, the greens, broccoli, onions, sausage, apples and a new addition, a tub of lard.
For years, I've been a butter-crust gal, learning from the pages of pie dough maven Rose Levy Beranbaum.
I had always been curious to try lard, but honestly, I was a bit squeamish. Those blocks sold in the supermarket looked less than appetizing, and I didn't know where else to source the stuff.
It wasn't until cooking school in Italy that I began to learn the role of lardo in Italian cooking as well as its subtle, delicate, far-from-hammy flavor. The lard of a pig feasting on apples and nuts on pasture tasted like apples and nuts, not a greasy film of diner bacon fat (or Crisco).
Recently, lard has been getting rave reviews. Farm market entrepreneur and food writer Nina Planck praises the benefits of lard in her book "Real Food," claiming that lard is healthier than canola oil and contains mostly unsaturated fat.
When I learned that Betsy and Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows Farm, were carrying lard at farm markets, I knew it was time for my pie-dough experiment. I've been out to their farm in Berryville, Va., and have seen first hand how their pigs roam freely, joyfully eating apples that fall directly from the trees. I was sold on the lard concept. Now I had to get busy.
I went back to Miz Rose and consulted her "Pie and Pastry Bible" which sometimes reads like an encyclopedia. Sure enough, there was a recipe for a lard crust. Because this was my maiden voyage, the experience was a little wobbly at first, but I quickly got the hang of it.
Beranbaum recommends making the dough in a zip-style plastic freezer bag, an idea I thought unnecessary at first, but she was right, of course. It just takes a little while to get through her languaging. Below, I navigate the fat trail.
The results: Magnificent! Unlike with a butter crust, the lard cooperated and integrated readily with the flour. Rolling it out was a breeze and there was no shrinkage after baking. The flavor was nutty, but decidedly un-porky; the texture was tender yet flaky. I was converted.
I also dabbled with pie fillings, trying my hand at sweet potato and pecan (recipes follow at bottom of page). Now that I've taken the time to roast and mash sweet potatoes and sweeten and spice them up for a pie crust, I've changed my mind. Sweet potato pie rules! It's better than pumpkin pie. It's got heft, it's free of the goop factor, it's good for breakfast.
To end the evening on a nutty note, I made a second pie with a pecan filling, a la Beranbaum, done in a tart pan. I liked how she leaves out the corn syrup, traditionally found in pecan pie filling. Instead, she substitutes golden syrup, a popular British sweetener made from evaporated sugar cane juice, which yields a less syrupy-sweet result, allowing the pecans to shine.
What are your favorite ways to make crust? Do you shun the lard as I had for so many years? And what about the pumpkin-sweet potato debate? Which team are you on? Weigh in on these very important pie matters in the comments area below.
Miracle Flaky Lard Crust
From "The Pie and Pastry Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum
1 1/3 cups plus 4 teaspoons pastry flour or all-purpose flour
Â½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
Â½ cup cold lard
Â¼ cup ice water
4 teaspoons cider vinegar
Whole wheat flour for rolling
Place a mixing bowl in freezer to chill.
Place flour, salt and baking powder in a zip-style gallon-size freezer bag and mix together. Using a melon baller, scoop balls of the lard directly into the flour, shaking bag occasionally to distrubte and cover them with the flour. Seal bag. If room is warm and lard starts getting very soft, place bag in freezer for about 10 minutes. If it is still firm but squishable once it's all been added, using a rolling pin, roll over exterior of bag, until lard is in thin flakes. Place bag in freezer for at least 30 minutes.
Empty flour mixture into cold bowl, scraping sides of the inside of the bag. Set bag aside. Gently pour on ice water and vinegar, tossing gently with a rubber spatula to incorporate evenly. Spoon mixture back into plastic bag.
With one hand in the bag and the other on the outside, knead mixture by alternately pressing it with knuckles and heels of both hands, until mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.
Remove dough from bag and place it on a sheet of plastic wrap. Sprinkle both sides with whole wheat flour. Cover with plastic, flatten dough into a disc and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
Will keep refrigerated up to 2 days; frozen, up to 3 months.
When rolling dough, you may roll directly on work surface or on plastic wrap. Sprinkle with whole wheat flour as needed to keep from sticking; don't worry, the whole wheat will not toughen dough and instead give it extra crunch.
From "The Pie and Pastry Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum
Note on Dough: Even though Beranbaum recommends a cream cheese pie crust, I used the above recipe with lard, and it worked beautifully. I also pre-baked the crust for about 10 minutes at 325 degrees in a 9 Â½ inch tart pie with a removable bottom.
1 Â½ cups pecan halves
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup golden syrup
Â½ cup light brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Â¼ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Arrange pecans, top sides up, over baked crust, in concentric fashion.
Have ready a strainer suspended over a small bowl.
In a small saucepan, combine yolks, syrup, brown sugar, butter, cream and salt. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon and without letting mixture boil, until uniform in color and just begins to thicken slightly (about 160 degrees on a candy thermometer), about 7-10 minutes. Remove from heat and strain immediately into small bowl. Stir in vanilla.
Slowly pour filling over the nuts, evenly coating surface.
Bake for about 20 minutes or until filling is puffed and golden and just beginning to bubble around the edges. Filling will shimmy slightly when moved. Allow pie to cool completely on a rack, about 45 minutes, before unmolding from pan.
Southern Sweet Potato Pie
From "Giving Thanks" by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimoth Plantation
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Â¾ cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 Â½ teaspoons each lemon juice and orange juice
1 Â½ cups sweet potatoes (about 2 large), roasted and mashed (Note: I passed the sweet potatoes through a hand-cranked food mill for a silkier result)
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
Â½ cup canned evaporated milk
1 Â½ teaspoons each grated lemon and orange zest (Note: I forgot to add this while baking, and the pie still came out great)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Â½ teaspoon salt
Â½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
Â½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Â¼ teaspoon ground allspice (Note: I had none in the house and omitted without a problem)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, using a mixer, cream butter and brown sugar. Beat in honey and juices. Add sweet potatoes and eggs and beat until incorporated. Add rest of ingredients and beat until smooth.
Pour mixture into pie shell. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 and continue to bake for 30 minutes more, or until knife inserted in middle comes out clean.
Storage: Keep wrapped in fridge.
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