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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Making Pie in the Microwave

Yesterday was one of my grandson's fifth birthday. He had told his mom he would like a pie instead of cake (a typical request in our family) but he couldn't decide just which kind, so maybe he should just be surprised.

Xavier loves fruit, so I knew that we'd go in that direction for a filling. Then, because we'd have quite a few family members sharing dinner, I knew that two would be better than one; now, to decide on two choices that would be economical, welcomed by all...and a surprise.

The first choice was not really a surprise--raspberries from the backyard are almost ubiquitous on the dessert menu. Even though we are in the month-long gap between crops, there are plenty of berries in the freezer to draw from, so that would be one of the pies.

Green grapes are on special this week at almost all the stores, some for as little as 88 cents a pound. That brought back memories of a pie I first made decades ago and hadn't tried for years. This time I decided to update it using the microwave, and the result was a pie that was impressive in its appearance, better in its flavor and, best of all, relatively inexpensive and easy.

Each of the pies was cut into twelve thin wedges, just in case anyone would like to try a bit of both; good plan, as the dual option was the choice of everyone at the party. The red and green slices on the plates were festive and could easily be duplicated in December for a Christmas color scheme.

Some Miscellaneous Hints to Remember:

Don't be put off by the multiple layers of the grape pie; You can use the same bowl for both the custard and the glaze if you scrape it well first.

I have found that thickening flour or cornstarch mixtures in the microwave is far easier than on the stove top, with fewer lumps and consistently smoother consistency. Just a couple of things to remember--be sure to use no more than MEDIUM power and stir often.

And, whether on the stove top or in the microwave, the method for mixing eggs into a hot custard is always the same--have the eggs beaten enough that you can no longer see uncombined whites and then pour a little of the hot mixture into the egg. Stir this together well before adding it back to the rest of the hot custard. If you just pour the egg into the hot mixture, the egg begins to set as soon as it hits and you are likely to have little bits of "scrambled egg" lumps throughout your custard. Learn this little trick (which really takes no more time or bowls) and you'll be on your way to making lots of wonderful sauces without fear of lumps.

Surprise Grape Pie

3/4 c orange juice (you can use juice made from frozen concentrate as well as fresh-squeezed)
2 1/2 T flour
1/2 c sugar
1 egg

1. Stir the flour and sugar together in a large microwave-safe bowl. Gradually add the orange juice.
2. Microwave, loosely covered, on MEDIUM power for about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, stirring about every minute or so. The mixture should boil up and become thick.
3. Beat the egg with a fork just enough so that the egg yolk and white are thoroughly mixed.
4. Pour a tablespoon or so of the hot orange juice mixture into the egg and stir to combine. Pour this mixture back into the rest of the orange juice mixture and return it to the microwave. Cook on MEDIUM power another minute, or until the mixture once again begins to bubble.
Set aside to cool.

1 c water
1/2 c sugar
4 t cornstarch

Stir the sugar and cornstarch together and then gradually add the water.
Microwave on MEDIUM power for about 2 minutes, stirring several times. The mixture will boil up and become translucent. Set aside to cool.


1 9 inch baked pie crust
Approximately 1 pound green grapes, washed, stemmed, and cut in half
1 orange

1. Pour the cooled custard into the baked pie shell.
2. Lay the grapes, cut side down, in concentric rings, over the pastry. Place the grapes so that the custard is completely covered.
3. Pour the glaze over the grapes.
4. Wash the orange well. Cut it into quarters and then thinly slice the quarters. Place around the edge of the pie.
5. Chill well before serving. Store in the refrigerator.


This raspberry pie also uses the microwave and is a good one any time you have raspberries in the freezer. Could you make it with fresh raspberries? Of course. Just put raspberries in a cup and then add water around them to come up to the one cup measure. Cook for a few minutes until the berries have released all their juices and then proceed with the recipe.

Raspberry Pie

1 baked 9 inch pie crust
4 to 5 c frozen raspberries, slightly thawed--best if not completely thawed
3/4 c sugar
3 T corn starch
1 T lemon juice (may use reconstituted)

1. Combine the sugar and cornstarch, mixing thoroughly.
2. Measure 1 cup of the juices of the thawing raspberries into a large microwave-safe bowl. (If you don't have quite a cup of juice, you may add a bit of water to reach the one cup level.) Gradually stir in the sugar and cornstarch mixture.
3. Microwave on MEDIUM for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture bubbles up and is thick and translucent. Remove from microwave and stir in the lemon juice. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
4. Fold the remaining berries into the cooked mixture and pour into the prepared pie shell. Chill before serving.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Low Fat Applesauce Cake

We've all heard about substituting applesauce for fat in cake recipes, so I went searching for some ideas for an applesauce pumpkin cake. Several sites suggested that cakes made from scratch really don't work well using this substitution, that it works best with cake mixes.

As you may have seen from earlier posts, I like to play around with cake mixes, but these comments were a challenge. Surely I could come up with something edible and acceptable without a mix. The result was a flavorful cake that, while not really "low cal" or truly "healthy," can still be enjoyed with at least a little less guilt. And, if your garden (or that of your friends) yields "free" pumpkin and/or applesauce, the cost can be kept low as well.

Low Fat Pumpkin Applesauce Cake

2 large/extra large or 3 medium eggs
1 c pumpkin puree (canned or home-cooked)
1 c applesauce
1/4 c water
1 c sugar
1 2/3 c flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t allspice
1/4 t cloves

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
2. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a 9 X 13 pan.* (You can do this while preheating the oven.) Stir in 1/3 cup brown sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Sprinkle with about 1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped walnuts.
3. Combine all cake ingredients and beat with an electric mixer for about 2 minutes, until very smooth. Pour batter over butter and sugar mixture.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, until center springs back or a toothpick inserted near the middle comes out clean.
5. Cool for about 5 minutes and then invert onto a tray.

(The 9 X 13 pan makes a cake only about the height of a brownie. A 7 X 11 pan can be used if higher pieces are desired.)

Zucchini Brownies

It's that time again, when every gardener supposedly looks for ways to push zucchini on to unsuspecting neighbors, family, and friends, and the table at church yesterday was piled with lots of the ubiquitous squash.

Others may not want this bounty, but it's been good for me, since I have somehow not yet been able to find the zucchini gardener secret. In three years, I have been able to harvest a grand total of two zucchinis.


This year at least, my butternut squash is thriving and taking over most of the garden, inundating the bush beans and peppers (which weren't doing too well anyway) and threatening to keep the three red cabbage plants from ever starting to head up. So I am always happy to accept anyone's zucchini and summer squash offerings. Between a couple of donors, I have had plenty to work with this week. On my way to a meeting where I have offered to make the dessert, I decided to try my hand at zucchini brownies, having done cakes and breads and lots of main dishes in the past. The following recipe didn't rise quite as high as regular brownies and is more cake-like than fudgy-chewy, but it is also much lower in fat and higher in fiber than the usual.

I had brownie mix on the shelf from a 79 cent sale awhile ago, so these turned out to be quite inexpensive--free zucchini, two eggs at 16 cents (priced under a dollar right now, eggs are another bargain) and the mix added up to less than a dollar for at least 24 brownies. Admittedly, the nuts added to the cost, but they are completely optional; I used them only to cover over any suspicious hint of "chunkiness" that the zucchini might have given. A dusting of powdered sugar provided a quick and inexpensive topping. Start to finish, they took little more than half an hour, since the baking time is only about 20 minutes.

Zucchini Brownies

1 package brownie mix for 9 X 13 pan--do not use low fat brownie mix for this recipe
2 eggs
1/4 c water
1 c finely shredded zucchini, firmly packed
1/4 to 1/2 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1. Spray a 9 X 13 inch pan with nonstick coating and preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Mix all ingredients together until smooth and pour into prepared pan.
3. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until just done; do not overbake.
4. When cool, sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar.

A couple of things to keep in mind:
These brownies are best eaten the first day or so, as they seem to become a little gummy over time. And while I only dusted them with powdered sugar, adding a chocolate frosting would probably make them more welcome to brownie purists.

Cauliflower--Special Buy of the Week

One of the supermarkets in town had huge heads of cauliflower on special this week for $1.50 each, so I bought several (they keep for weeks in the vegetable drawer). When I got them home, I weighed them, as I often do, just because I'm like that! They weighed in at over 3 1/2 pounds each, after trimming, a little over 40 cents a pound.

When I speak of "trimming," I don't mean throwing half the cauliflower away! Here's a hint to keep in mind with cauliflower--and broccoli too. All too often, cooks use only the flowerette parts of both broccoli and cauliflower, throwing away perfectly good food. Except for very woody sections (rare in cauliflower and uncommon even with all but the largest broccoli), the entire head can be used after cutting off the outer leaves. Broccoli leaves that haven't wilted don't have to be cut off either.

Yes, the stems may not be as attractive as the flowerettes, but you can slice or dice them and use them in stir fries, toss them into salads for extra crispness, or add them to soups, stews, and casseroles where their shape will blend in with the other vegetables. (If you don't have a use for these "extra" parts right away, steam the diced stems briefly in the microwave and put in the freezer for adding to dishes later.) Learning to use all the edible parts of the food you buy can be a quick way to stretch the budget!

So what did I do with this week's bounty? The first one was cut into flowerettes to go on a vegetable tray with baby carrots, fresh green beans, and some cucumber slices from the garden. One of the women at church had brought fresh dill to share, so there is a yogurt dill dip to go with the veggies. The stem sections were diced and added to a stir fry with--of course--zucchini, corn, carrots, onions, sweet banana peppers, Swiss chard, garlic, and lots of herbs and seasoning.

Next up will be the following dish that has become a favorite side at Thanksgiving. It's easy, colorful, and high in nutrition. Note that there is no salt or fat; the mixture of flavors makes any such additions unnecessary.
I'm not sure what is the magic in the lettuce leaves, but they do seem to make the peas especially taste very fresh. If you cut the onions in thin rings, the dish is especially attractive, but you can also chop them if that is quicker and easier.

Cauliflower and Peas
1 small to medium head cauliflower
12 to 16 oz frozen peas (do not thaw)
1 large sweet onion, cut in thin rings
1 t Italian seasoning
2 to 3 T water
3 to 4 large lettuce leaves (the darker green, the better)

1. Cut or break the cauliflower into small flowerets about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
2. Put the cauliflower, peas, and onions into a large heavy saucepan with a tight fitting lid. Sprinkle with seasonings and add water. Lay the lettuce leaves over the top, completely covering all the vegetables.
3. Cover and bring to a boil; turn heat to low and simmer 12 to 18 minutes, until the cauliflower is just tender--do not overcook.
4. Remove and discard lettuce leaves before serving.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lemon Meringue Pie

Seems like I'm on a dessert binge here, but this is a good finale for warm summer days. We have had several weeks recently with lemons on sale (though you can easily use reconstituted lemon juice in a bottle here for even more savings), and eggs have continued to be quite reasonable this summer.

When I have mentioned making lemon meringue pie, a few people have said they like it but find it to be "too much trouble." I guess that's one of the things I like about this recipe: it is easier than it looks, especially if you remember just a couple of things about separating eggs:

  • Egg whites are easy to beat into a meringue ONLY if they have absolutely no fat in them. This means avoiding plastic containers (they are porous enough to sometimes have tiny amounts of fat residue) and being sure that not even a drop of egg yolk is allowed into the whites before beating. If the yolk of one of the eggs breaks while you are trying to separate it, just put that egg aside and use it for another purpose.
  • While eggs separate most easily while fresh and chilled, they beat up to the highest volume when at room temperature. You can use these facts to best advantage by taking the eggs from the refrigerator and separating them as the first step. Then begin to prepare the sugar syrup and lemon juice. By the time you are ready to beat the whites, they should be at an optimal temperature.

There is one other thing to remember in following this recipe: Gradually is a key word, both when adding the cornstarch and water to the boiling syrup and when adding the sugar to the frothy egg whites. Take these steps slowly and you should have no problems.

What about the pie crust? I have a favorite recipe that I mix up when I am in the mood for pies, but there are many times when a premade crust in the refrigerated or frozen sections of the store is no more expensive than homemade. Watch for specials and keep these on hand if it will help you choose a pie for a special occasion dessert. (OR...look below and try your hand at your own homemade crust when the mood strikes and butter or margarine is on sale.)

Classic Lemon Meringue Pie

9 inch baked pie shell
1 1/2 c sugar
1 1/2 c water
1/2 c cornstarch
1/3 c water
4 egg yolks
1/2 c lemon juice
1 t grated lemon peel

4 egg whites
1/2 c sugar

1. Separate the egg whites from the egg yolks and put the whites in a large mixing bow; set aside.
2. Combine the egg yolks and lemon juice and stir until mixed; set aside.
3. Combine the sugar and 1 1/2 cups water in a pan and bring to a boil. While it is heating, stir the cornstarch into the 1/2 c water so that it forms a smooth paste. When the sugar syrup is boiling, gradually add this mixture, stirring constantly. Cook until the mixture is thick and clear.
4. Gradually add the egg yolk and lemon mixture to the sugar syrup, stirring constantly, until the mixture returns to a boil. Stir in the lemon peel and allow to cool to lukewarm, approximately half an hour or so.
5. When the filling has cooled, beat the egg whites until frothy. Gradually add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is glossy and forms peaks. Fold a few tablespoons of this mixture into the filling.
6. Pour the lemon filling into the baked pie shell and spread the meringue gently over the top, making sure it touches the crust at all edges. (If you don't "fasten" the meringue to the crust, it will shrink away from the edges during baking.)
7. Bake at 325 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, until just starting to turn golden in spots. The pie should be completely cooled before cutting. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator.

Frugal tip: Whenever you buy fresh lemons to use for juice and/or pulp, be sure to save the rind. If you are like me, I sometimes have trouble getting much of the lemon peel off when I try to grate it. If so, just cut away the very top yellow layer of the peeling and then cut into thin shreds. Put the shredded or grated rind in a resealable plastic bag and freeze. You can then break off the amount you need for future recipes.

Homemade Pie Crust

Want to try your own pie crust? This recipe is a large one, which means I can make enough for up to four pie shells at a time, freezing the extras for later use.

Since the only hard fats I keep in the house are butter and, rarely, margarine, that is what I use for my pie crust. Many cooks swear by lard or Crisco, but I will stick with these. As long as you don't overmix (something to remember no matter the fat being used), you'll have good results.

Note that there is no salt in this crust--the butter and margarine will provide more than enough!

Country Crusts

4 c all purpose flour
1/2 t baking powder
1 T sugar
1 1/4 c butter or margarine
1 egg
1 T vinegar
1/2 c cold water

1. Blend dry ingredients. Cut in butter until the largest particles are about the size of peas.
2. Combine the egg, water, and vinegar and stir until smooth.
3. Sprinkle the egg mixture over the flour a tablespoon at a time, tossing lightly with a fork to mix. Gather the dough with your hands, so that it cleans the bowl and forms a ball.
4. Chill well before rolling.

Makes four single crust 9" pie shells or two double crust 9" pies.

To freeze: Roll a quarter of the dough into a circle between two pieces of waxed paper and place, flat, in a freezer bag. Several crusts can be stacked in the same bag, as long as they are separated by two sheets of waxed paper between each. Remove from freezer and use just as with purchased frozen crusts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Strawberry Applesauce Cupcakes

Two factors came together today for an easy, relatively inexpensive dessert that has been a real hit: first, I had some 99 cents a pound strawberries that needed to be used up quickly and I needed to find a dessert that I could make and finish within an hour and a half. Fortunately I still have a lot of frozen unsweetened applesauce that needs to be used up to make room for this year's harvest, so I modified a cake mix recipe to fit what was on hand and came up with some light, refreshing cupcakes. This would make at least 2 dozen regular sized cupcakes, but I made a dozen miniature cupcakes and still had enough for 19 regular ones.

The applesauce thawed quickly, but the microwave could have been used if necessary. This would probably work just as well with frozen strawberries (NOT in syrup) when fresh ones are not available at a good price.

Cupcakes can be a good choice in the summer, since they do bake a little more quickly than full-sized cakes and can be frozen so that you can thaw only as many as you need on a really hot day without heating up the oven again.

Strawberry Applesauce Cupcakes

1 package yellow cake mix
8 ounces unsweetened applesauce
approximately 8 ounces strawberries
2 eggs

Process strawberries and applesauce in blender until smooth. You should end up with one and a half cups of puree; if you need more, you can add more strawberries or just enough water to make that amount.

Combine the cake mix, eggs, and strawberry applesauce puree; when all the ingredients are well-mixed, continue to beat with an electric mixer for 2 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place paper liners in muffin tins; spray each paper lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Spoon the batter into the cups, filling each just over half full. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the center springs back (or use a toothpick or skewer to test for doneness). If using miniature muffin pans, bake for only 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool. When ready to frost, pull the liner away from the side of each cupcake just far enough to cut a slit in the middle of the cupcake--don't cut all the way through. Spread a little frosting into this slit and press the cupcake together, pressing the paper liner back against the cake. Spread the top with frosting. Makes about 24 cupcakes. Store in the refrigerator.

Strawberry Frosting and Filling
1 T soft butter
3/4 c fresh strawberries, finely chopped
powdered sugar--approximately 2 to 3 cups
1/2 t almond extract
1 t lemon juice (may use bottled or fresh)

Stir strawberries and butter together and then mix in a cup or so of powdered sugar, the almond extract and lemon juice. Beat with a fork until quite smooth. Continue adding powdered sugar until quite thick. Place in refrigerator for at least half an hour. As this stands, the acid in the strawberries may cause the mixture to thin out, so you may need to add more powdered sugar. Warning: this will probably never develop a really creamy consistency, staying much more like a glaze.

If desired, add a small strawberry or strawberry slice to the top of each just before serving.