In the quickest of updates, I wanted to point you in the direction of a story I did for the Globe and Mail this week; it's about Peach Plum Pie, which is my ideal rendition of a stone fruit dessert for this time of year. The pastry is a keeper, first and foremost, easy to make and supremely forgiving. The filling, voluptuous without too much ooze, is scented with almond and vanilla. It is a good way to ease into fall baking, and the colour from the plums—magenta in the bowl but deepening on baking, so the pie is streaked through with its blush—is a pretty spectacular goodbye to summer if I do say so myself.

Quiet Acres Farm Stand | Tara O'Brady
Peach Plum Pie for the Globe + Mail | Tara O'Brady
Peach Plum Pie for the Globe + Mail | Tara O'Brady

Also! I'm heading to Pennsylvania next month for an event! I will be hosting a brunch at Terrain's Glen Mills location, on October 4, 2015 from 10 to 11:30 AM. The menu will be inspired by recipes from my book, and I'll be demonstrating a dish, plus there'll be lots of time to chat and say hello. Ticket information and details are available on Terrain's site, and I hope you'll be able to make it. It's also the weekend of their Autumn Bounty Festival, so it should be a great time.

Back with a recipe in a few days. See you soon!

p.s. for anyone visiting locally, the farm stand photographed is Quiet Acres in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 

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I have talked before about how this whole writing business is generally solitary.

The independent work is often freeing; the singularity clears distraction. It can allow that cerebral space to isolate your message, your voice. Your perspective.

(As I write this, a six-year-old is telling me nuances of various Lego themes. So I'm not companionless, and maybe that limited distraction thing isn't always possible — but there's at least the chance of it.)

That said, I don't think we should always work on our own. I was at a conference recently, and one of the speakers, Robin Esrock, talked about living a life away from the computer. He believes that rich, diverse experiences are not only of value in their own right, but also bolster your efforts upon your return to your work. I'll co-sign that argument.

I think we also have to remember to do different work now and again. Away from the desk and at it. And for me, that means collaborating. I'm lucky to have a friend who's often up for the task in Nikole Herriott. (Hi, N!) 

And, on our most recent effort was this, a Chai Masala Pumpkin Pie with Black Tea Caramel. 

Chai Masala Pumpkin Pie + Black Tea Caramel  | PHOTO: Nikole Herriott  RECIPES: Tara O'Brady

Chai Masala Pumpkin Pie + Black Tea Caramel | PHOTO: Nikole Herriott  RECIPES: Tara O'Brady

Nikole and I look for any excuse to work together, and try to whenever we can. So, when asked to be part of Food52's pie week for Thanksgiving, it was a no-brainer. Also easy, coming up with our pie, as Nikole and I share a love of pumpkined varieties — so I set to tacking down the particulars of one of the best I know how to make. 

You'll find the pie on Food52; but let's get into the details here. The pastry is a simple one, but specifically the one that you'll find in my book next spring. It is my family go-to, and it has flake, but still enough strength to hold up in a braid as perfect as the one that Nikole wove. (Come on now, look at it. A thing of beauty.) The filling has a couple of secrets. A gentle heat on the stovetop before it bakes helps with the filling's set, so it is firm yet supple. The spicing comes from chai masala, the spice used to sometimes flavour tea. It is a collection of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, clove, and black pepper not dissimilar to what's standard for pumpkin pies, but with a touch of almost gingersnap-cookie feeling in there. It also isn't overly sweet and thus allows for the introduction of caramel.

The caramel completes the masala chai theme, with cream steeped with black tea and whole cardamom pods as the base. The tea, and go with a nice one here, provides a musky, herbal character as well as a tannic edge. I feel like it's that verging-on-winey quality of Darjeeling that saves the caramel from coming across as cloying. Instead it's got a subtlety that doesn't overpower the pie.

Once again, it's a collaboration that just works. I can't say enough good things about it.

 

BLACK TEA CARAMEL

This caramel comes together quickly, which is a good thing considering how many uses you'll find for it. It is quite a triumph with this pie, but also on pound cake, or ice cream with some roasted nuts, or stirred into warm milk. And, if you're already thinking in such a direction, I would think folks might like jars when the time for festive gifting aries. 

MAKES just about 2 cups (475 ml)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/4 cups (295 ml) heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon loose leaf black tea, Darjeeling is best
  • 4 green cardamom pods, cracked
  • 2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) water
  • 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon whisky
  • Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt such as Maldon

 

METHOD

In a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat, bring the cream to a simmer. Stir in the tea and cardamom pods and let bubble for 30 seconds. Turn off the heat, cover, and leave to steep while you get on with the caramel.

Pour the water into a large, wide heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour the sugar into the centre of the pan. Do not stir. Once the sugar is mostly wet and starting to dissolve, gently swirl the pan once or twice. Let the mixture come to a boil then cook, carefully swirling only occasionally, until the syrup is a light amber colour, 13 to 15 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and wait for the caramel to turn deep amber (it may begin to send up whiffs of smoke), 3 to 5 minutes more.

Off the heat, with a fine-meshed sieve, strain a quarter of the hot cream into the caramel, standing back as the caramel will expand rather impressively and release a cloud of steam. Whisk in that cream, then add the rest. Stir in the maple syrup, butter, vanilla, and salt, then return the pan to the heat. Knock the heat back to low and simmer, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, just to cook off some of the edge of the whisky and make sure everything is blended. Pour the caramel into a heatsafe jar or bowl. Use hot (but not scalding) or let cool completely before storing in a covered container in the fridge. Rewarm before serving.

 

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We'd had apples and pumpkin already for our pies, yet I still had the lingering twitch to make another. One with walnuts. And maple. As you do, this time of year.

For my friends in the United States, I'm here to give you a head start. For everyone else, I'm here to give you Maple Walnut Custard Pie.

While I'd boldly declared dessert plans figured, I've gone and improved upon the theme with a real contender for shared billing with that ice cream. I made this pie on Sunday, a week after our Thanksgiving and forty-some-odd days before the American counterpart (there's your head start, pals to the south — you can thank me later).

Ice cream was actually at the beginning of this. That's what got into my head, this funny memory of a past conversation with a friend, detailing the merits of Butter Pecan ice cream versus Maple Walnut. (And it's a good friend who both puts up with, and ardently participates in, such arguments.) Our debate made me think of my father, as it always does — not only because Maple Walnut is usually his favourite, but also because he began sugaring the maple trees on his property the same winter my eldest son was born.  

He tapped a few trunks and he, with the help of my eldest nephew, harvested the sap. They made quite the picture, ferrying buckets full of clear liquid from the forest to big pots that sat atop a wood-fed stove. There the sap bubbled and reduced, going golden then amber and sweet. In those first years, the stove had a shorter stack, so the resulting syrups were touched with smoke. The syrup smelled, and even better tasted, of crisp air and campfires. 

It was the nicest I've ever had. 

So I made this pie, with my father still in mind, and my mother-in-law too, because she likes both butter pecan and maple walnut, and Sean's grandmother as well, because she makes the finest Butter Tarts and this pie reminds me of them —  a subject we should stick a pin in and come back to later.

This pie is an old-fashioned looker, made by hand. You can consider it a rustic variation on pecan pie, a brawny northern cousin that's caramelly sweet but unexpectedly subtle. A bit flannely, with a generous smile. That sort.

You'll see there's two brown sugars in the filling. I thought all dark might be too heavy, and all golden might be too anemic - but using only one or the other would be perfectly fine in a pinch. The one thing can't be fiddled is the maple syrup, which needs to be proper stuff. 

Choose the grade you're fond of, or if you come across some smokily intense maple syrup, then that's the one to invite along. It'll hang around with the toasty-edged walnuts and get on like best mates who to talk about ice cream. 

Their companionship is both complimented and tamed by the boosted creaminess brought by a swirl of evaporated milk (I know!) stirred in with the eggs. And the oats! Those oats, they're tricky misters, and the subject of quite the side-eye as they went into the bowl. But oh, what a difference a soak and a bake make. The oats fluff up, lose their form and give the pie a pleasant density, setting the custard soft and pudding-like, underneath the cobblestone crust of walnuts that float to the top and go crunchy.

In secure belief that this is a pie you'll like, I'll see about asking Dad for an extra-large syrup harvest come spring.

I'll thank him later for that. Quite possibly with pie. 

Maple Walnut Custard Pie

Adapted from The Egg Farmers of Ontario.

The ingredients are pretty much the same as the original; the method is where things change. Here there's the instruction to pre-bake the crust. And, when almost done, the warm pastry gets a thin coat of egg white, which is then baked for a minute until shining.

These added measures maintain some of the crust's crispness, which is nice against the smooth filling. It also makes the pastry edge extra pretty. 

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup golden brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup old fashioned oats
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/8 teaspoon table
  • 1 unbaked 8-by-2-inch chilled pastry shell, see note
  • Granulated sugar for sprinkling
  • One egg white for brushing plus 3 whole eggs, lightly beaten

Method

Preheat an oven to 400°F (205°C). 

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the walnuts until golden and fragrant. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together sugars, oats, evaporated milk, maple syrup, melted butter, vanilla and salt. 

Prick the pastry all over with a fork. Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes, pressing down any puffed areas with the back of a spoon gently if necessary. Remove the foil and bake for 10 minutes more, the crust should be starting to look dry in places. Remove the crust from the oven, brush all over with a thin coating of the egg white, and sprinkle edge with granulated sugar, if desired. Return to the oven to bake for 1 minute more. 

Set aside the crust to keep warm, and reduce the oven temperature to  350°F (175°C).

Stir the toasted walnuts into the filling, along with the whole eggs. As soon as the oven reaches temperature, pour the filling into the still-warm crust and bake until puffed at the centre and set with little wobble, about 60 minutes. Transfer to a baking rack and cool completely before slicing. 

Makes one 8-inch pie, serving 8-10.

Notes:

  • I changed the size of the pie, as the greater ratio of filling to pastry made for a more satisfying bite. A pâte brisée recipe for a 9 or 10-inch pie will allow for the extra depth of a 8-by-2-inch pie plate. If using a store-bought pie shell, which are usually 9-inch, reduce the cooking time to around 40 minutes. 
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the last of august

I do believe that summer may have left us.

Despite the weekend's warmth of a sun that seemed especially golden, the rustle of leaves this morning speaks in murmurs of autumn. The sky looks a painterly depiction of the layers of a feathers on a dove's wing. 

I wore jeans the other day, and a shirt with long sleeves. What's worse is that I didn't mind. I may have even cast a longing glance at a pair of wool socks.

And then there's school. Yesterday was the the first for our First, Benjamin's first day at school. Backpack and new shoes, a fresh haircut and the whole nine yards. September is forever changed in what it means to him. And to us, as we zipped up that backpack and mussed up that hair and thought to ourselves, "my, how time does fly."

Not to dwell too long, or next thing you know I'll be humming The Byrds and we'll all be lost. 

Let's rewind. Back to summer. And back to this pie - it's Blackberry Cream Pie, in case you're wondering. And it was the way we said goodbye to our August, with a send off and a salute. 

If you ask me, there's no doubt, blackberries are the end of summer, swallowed whole. I feel like their sourness differs from that of strawberries and raspberries. It seems to hit further back on the tongue, at the back of the jaw and tannic. Like their looks, they taste darker, of fruit that should grow among brambles, of wildness and things overgrown.

And to me, this pie, is all that is an August afternoon, transfixed.

Inspired by a pie from Sweet Fine Day, this version has a golden shortbread crust beneath a filling of whole berries bound by a soft-set blackberry purée. It's voluptuous and beguiling like jelly without the wobble.The whole fruit, those ebony clustered bubbles bursting upon biting, are full of all of August's heat and humidity. 

There's patches of pink where the filling seeps into the pale cream, but mostly the fruit just shines duskily, jet and juicy.

The wind is picking up now, with the curtains at my side puffing in and out with the breath of September. The start of something new is upon us, but this summer, and it was a good one, is still on my mind. 

BLACKBERRY CREAM PIE

Adapted from the Fresh Strawberry Pie from Sweet Fine Day. Most packets of powdered gelatin contain 1 tablespoon, or 3 teaspoons - this recipe will use an entire packet, with 2 teaspoons for the filling and 1 teaspoon reserved for the topping.

FOR THE CRUST

  • 2 cups shortbread cookie crumbs
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

FOR THE FILLING

  • 6 cups blackberries, divided
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
  • Ingredients for the topping
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy, whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon powdered gelatin
  • 2 tablespoons milk

METHOD

To make the crust, preheat an oven to 325°F (160°C). In a large bowl, stir together the cookie crumbs and salt. While stirring, start to drizzle in the butter. Only use enough butter to dampen the crumbs - depending on the cookies used it might be as little as 1 tablespoon or as much as 3. If you compress the crumbs with the back of a spoon they should pack like sand at the beach, but not appear sodden.

Press the crumbs into a 10-inch springform pan, forming an even layer across the bottom and a 3-inch crust up the sides. Bake in the preheated oven until lightly golden and set, around 8-10 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.

To make the filling, take 3 cups of the berries and put them in a medium saucepan with the sugar and the of the salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the fruit becomes soft and the juices begin to thicken, around 7-10 minutes.

Carefully remove the blackberries to a blender (or use an immersion blender), and process until smooth. Push the puréed sauce through a sieve, back into the saucepan. Return to the heat and bring again to a simmer, stirring often. Cook the sauce until it becomes thick, with a clear, glossy look, around 5-7 minutes. You should have around 1 cup of purée.

Off the heat, stir in the lemon zest, followed by the soaked gelatin, stirring quickly to dissolve.

Tumble in the reserved berries, give them a few turns in the pan to coat, then pour into the cooled crust. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to start to firm up.

To make the topping, pour the whipping cream into a bowl along with the sugar and scraped contents of the vanilla bean. Beat the cream to firm peaks, then fold in the sour cream. 

In a small saucepan, soak the gelatin in the milk. Once soaked, heat the gelatin gently over low heat until it melts and the mixture is smooth. Working quickly but gently, fold the gelatin into the whipped cream. Spread the topping over the blackberry filling, return the pie to the fridge and chill until set, around 2 hours. 

To serve, remove from the pan and cut with a warm knife, wiping the blade clean between slices. 

Makes a 10-inch pie.

Notes:

  • I used an oatmeal shortbread cookie to make the crumbs for the crust, but a plain shortbread or graham crackers will work beautifully. In the case of the latter, you will need to use extra melted butter for the crumbs to hold together properly.
  • Earlier this summer I made this pie with raspberries and a graham cracker crust. If they're the berry for you, don't hesitate to do the same. 
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I used to have a particular prejudice against banana cream pies. When I thought of them, I thought of flabby pastry barely-restraining globs of pudding soused with imitation banana flavouring and topped with mounds of cotton-candy-sweet cream. I assumed their only use was as the punchline to a gag; the projectile of choice for one clown to toss squarely into the pucker of another - most likely right after they had exited the confines of a very small car. Discarded pie everywhere, the crowd erupts in riotous laughter.

That is what I thought of banana cream pies.

As with most prejudices, mine was not rooted in much reason. Save for an encounter with some aggressively-flavoured banana pudding I had at a friends house as a child, I do not think I have ever tried anything remotely associated to a banana cream pie. Banana bread, we're old acquaintances. But banana cream pie and I were pretty much strangers.

Most often I see it offered against the gleaming expanse of diner counters, on mile-high cake stands, with its pristine swirls captured under a glass dome. I am almost enticed. But then my wandering eye catches glimpse of Banana Cream's sibling Coconut or its dreamy cousin Chocolate, both equally (and moreso) tempting. There's no contest. It hardly needs saying that my preference consistently falls with the the latter.

My dear friend, all of that is in the past. For now I am a full-fledged, card-carrying convert.

These past few days, I have had reason to feel thankful. Thankful in a way that makes you feel lucky. That makes you feel cared for. That makes you feel light. I have had good reason to feel crazy as well, but the thankful part far outweighs all of that nonsense.

I wanted to bake something for those responsible for some of that gratitude, to wordlessly express how much their efforts were appreciated. I feel like a Wednesday is a fine reason to celebrate when they are around. With book laid open, the recipe for banana cream pie grabbed my fancy and would not let go; the notion of a proper pie just about glowed in my mind with projected nostalgia.

So I baked my first banana cream pie. And what did I learn?

I learned that banana cream pies can be sublime. Now that is an often-used word when it comes to dessert, but a more apt description would be hard to find. This pie is worlds away from any of my preconceived notions. Crisp pastry cradles slices of ripe banana layered with smooth, spiced custard. The fruit and pastry cream are meltingly supple, melding into one, singular, wonderful texture. Atop all of this a cloud of heavy cream, barely whipped and barely sweet, tangy and bright with the addition of some sour cream.

If you are going to have a banana cream pie, please take my word and make it this one. This pie is not for throwing.

BANANA CREAM PIE

From the book Baking: From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) by Dorie Greenspan. A modern classic, this book is one of my most reliable resources - I have never been disappointed by a recipe. My family will heartily attest to that.

Recipe

Notes:

• I used dark brown sugar instead of light brown sugar in the filling as that was all I had on hand. The resulting custard had a deep, rich caramel flavour; its colour was a bit muddied, but we didn't mind.

• I added a good pinch of ground ginger to go along with the cinnamon and nutmeg.

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