Miraculous Melissa and her mystic methodology

Apr. 02, 2013 @ 08:55 AM

Pastry is hard.

Did you ever have a piece of pie where the crust has more in common with a welcome mat than an actual baked good?

It all has to do with how you handle your dough.

You can take the exact same recipe, and with a light touch, you have flaky, buttery heavenly, yumminess.  Overwork the same dough, and you get heavy, rubbery sadness.

Pastry is hard.

So I never even bothered to try.  I was sure I couldn’t do it.  Instead, whenever I need pastry crust, I would buy the pre-made rolls in the dairy section of my grocer.

If you buy the right brand, they’re terrific.  But, crazy expensive.

So what’s a girl to do?

Learn to make pastry — but it’s hard.

On Food Network, they have a show every year or so called “Next Food Network Star”.  It goes for weeks as they whittle down a field of home cooks, bloggers and others interested in food.

A couple of years ago, a woman named Melissa d'Arabian won.

The Kid and I liked Melissa from the first show.  She’s a terrific cook, and even better, she’s got all kinds of tips and tricks to make one’s life easier in the kitchen.

One of our favorite recipes of Melissa’s is a potato dish.  You use a muffin tin, and make little cakes.  My mom likes them so much, she once ate an entire tin worth.  I changed the recipe a bit, for our tastes. 


Matthews-Style Tater Cakes

Vegetable spray

2 large russet potatoes, roughly peeled and thinly sliced (1/8 inch)

1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese

1 shallot, diced

Smoked paprika

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Spray 8 muffin tins with vegetable spray. Layer potato slice, cheese, and shallots into each muffin cup, and repeat until cup is almost full (about 6-8 slices per cake). Season with salt and pepper and top each gratin with 1 or 2 tablespoons of heavy cream.  Lightly dust each with paprika.   Spray foil underside with cooking spray and cover.  Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, removing the foil halfway through cooking time. Invert gratins onto plate and serve.


When Melissa was younger, she lived in France.  She met and married a nice French boy.  With a French mother.

I don’t know whether Melissa’s mother-in-law was just a really nice, sharing woman, or she wanted to make sure her son ate right.  But she taught Melissa.  And, Melissa learned.

During one challenge, D’Arabian made a gorgeous potato tart.  One of the judges was Francois Payard, a world famous pastry chef.  He told her that the pastry in her tart was some of the best he’d ever had.

That did it.  The Kid and I decided to go for it. 

Guess what?

We made pastry dough!

Yeah, we made a pie.  But, the neatest thing we did with that glorious dough was to make hand pies.

When I made our green pork chili, we didn’t use the entire pork butt in it.  I took the extra meat, chopped it up and mixed in a little green salsa.  We filled our hand pies, and I brushed on some beaten egg, and sprinkled with a little kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper.  I baked them at 375 for about 30 minutes. 

They were so amazing The Kid and I started looking around the kitchen for other things to stuff our pies with.  We realized we had maybe gone a bit too far when we found ourselves making pies for our dog, Riker, filled with kibble.

Since I’ve been making the crust, I’ve learned a few things.  Gluten, the stretchy protein that makes bread so good, is your enemy here.  That is what will make your crust chewy, and not flaky.  Water and wheat make gluten — so what to do?

First, I use cake flour.  Then, instead of all water, I use a little vodka.  It’s not much, and the alcohol will almost totally cook out.  But the flour/vodka combo will not produce any gluten, so it will give you a leg up.


Pastry Crust for Scaredy-Cats

1 cup butter (2 sticks), cubed and chilled

2 1/2  cups +1/2 tablespoon cake  flour

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons very cold vodka

5-8  tablespoons ice water

Put the butter, flour and salt in the food processor, and pulse lightly just until the mixture resembles wet sand. Add vodka, then water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing briefly after each spoonful. Keep adding liquid until the dough just begins to gather into larger clumps.  Pour dough onto flat surface and lightly knead just until it comes together (this is where you want a very light touch — don’t overwork it). Transfer dough into resealable plastic bag and pat into a disk. Let rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Or freeze for later use.


The Kid and I are convinced that Melissa is magic.  After almost a half of a century, I can make a pretty darn good pie crust.

Maybe I can get her to cast a spell on me so that after eating all her wonderful food, I will get off the couch, and go for a jog.

Thanks for your time.