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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 04:18 am

Food's four-letter word

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It’s time we had a little talk. Warning: It’s about something that has negative connotations and that some folks think is disgusting, but we’re all adults here, right?

We need to talk about…lard. Yes, I know. I can hear the cries of “Yuck!” and “Eeyoo!” But I’m hoping that since I’ve summoned the courage to bring up the subject, you’ll have the courage to hear me out.

The truth is that lard has gotten an unfairly bad rap/rep(utation).

For centuries, lard was a predominate fat anywhere that pork was eaten, back when folks utilized the whole animal. Probably its cheapness and availability obscured its culinary contributions. In fact, Crisco was introduced in 1911 as a lard substitute that solved its only perceived drawback: before refrigeration, lard could become rancid in hot weather.

In the rush to embrace food “science,” lard became passé, with only diehard traditionalists still using it. Large-scale pork/lard processors began hydrogenating (the same process used to create Crisco, which artificially alters molecules so that soft fats and oils solidify and don’t spoil at room temperature) it to compete. But Crisco and other imitators were made from vegetable oil, marketed as purer and healthier. Some traditionalists clung to their use of (unhydrogenated) lard because they knew it gave an incomparable taste and texture to foods ranging from pie to tamales to fried chicken, but even they used it with a degree of guilt. Studies concluding that saturated fats (which, with a few exceptions such as palm kernel or coconut oil, became synonymous with animal fats) contributed to heart disease. This further demonized lard.

Ironically, new, more sophisticated discoveries have caused health professionals to have a less condemnatory view of lard, much to the delight of those food traditionalists as well as a new generation of chefs and food-lovers.

Here’s what they’ve found: trans-fats are the real problem, because they increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol. They’re primarily found in artificially hardened fats such as Crisco (that hardening process also saturates them). The FDA says that there’s no healthy level of dietary trans-fats. While there are tiny traces of trans-fats in some natural oils and fats, many experts feel that naturally occurring tans-fats don’t pose the threat to human health that artificial trans-fats do. They’ve likened ingesting trans-fats to humans trying to digest plastic.

Lard has half the level of saturated fat that is found in palm or coconut oil, and its saturated fat levels are much lower than butter — 40 percent v. 60 percent. Lard also has almost double butter’s content of monounsaturated (a.k.a. good) fat: 45 percent vs. 23 percent.

All this was welcome news to those who’d continued to use lard. As Pete Wells stated in his December, 2005 article in Food and Wine Magazine, “Lard, The New Health Food”: “It is a fat of rare finesse. Extra-virgin olive oil is more versatile…yet I generally find it too assertive for frying. Corn and soybean oils perform well at the higher temperatures used for frying, but they also leave an unpleasant tacky residue…like wet paint. After hanging out in your mouth for a minute, a lard-fried crust becomes soft and creamy, as voluptuous as a Rubens nude but not as heavy…. Lard is the most elegant fat I’ve ever met.”

Lard has always been known for its superior performance in pies (see next page), but it also makes incomparable fried chicken, fish and seafood, and is indispensable in authentic ethnic cuisines such as Mexican. ”Lard is what makes my refried beans and enchilada sauce taste so good,” says Maya chef/owner Carlos DeLeon.

Good lard – a.k.a. unhydrogenated lard (the creepy hydrogenated version available in most grocery stores is unrefrigerated and packed in one-pound containers) can be found locally at Humphrey’s Market, 1821 S. 15th St., 217-544-7518, and at Stan Schutte’s stand at the Wednesday Farmers’ Market. Stan also makes monthly local deliveries to his buying club — call 217-895-3652 or e-mail Stan at triplsfarm@stewstras.net.


PIE PASTRY 

When I was young, no pies ever equalled my grandmother’s, either in homes or restaurants. Even then, I was something of a crust connoisseur, realizing that the crust was more indicative of the bakers’ talent than the filling. Nana used lard for her pie crusts, and I learned pie-making by watching her, and then having her watch over my first attempts. Still, when I realized that classic French pâté brisée (a.k.a. pie dough) called for butter, I had to try it. I loved the taste, but missed lard’s unique texture and flavor. Experimenting, I concluded that a combination of butter and lard made an even better crust than Nana’s — or French pâtissiers’.

There are reasons for this beyond personal preference. Flaky pie crust results when the fat is incorporated into the flour to form a dough without the two being completely emulsified. As the dough bakes, the flattened minuscule bits of fat melt, creating layers. The same principle applies when making flaky yeast pastries such as croissants. Because butter softens and melts at a higher temperature than lard, using both makes it possible to achieve a dough that is simultaneously tender and flaky, as well as rich in flavor.

I’d thought I was innovative in using both butter and lard, but found I was hardly unique. Michael Higgins, chef/owner of Maldaner’s is passionate about pie — and pie crust. Earlier this year, when I wrote about top local chefs’ choices for their last meal, Higgins’ feelings were clear:

”For my last meal I want pie made by whoever can make the best homemade pie. I don’t care what the filling is, but the crust can’t be made with Crisco. It has to be made with butter and lard. If it’s not a great pie, it won’t be my last meal.” Higgins also uses lard when frying chicken and in a few other preparations.

Makes enough dough for 2 crusts suitable for 9-10” pies 

  • 2 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1/2 c. EACH unsalted butter and unhydrogenated lard, OR 1 c. unsalted butter, OR 1 c. unhydrogenated lard
  • 1/3 to 1/2 c. ice water.

When making pie pastry, all ingredients and utensils should be cold or cool. To make pastry in a food processor: Cut the butter into small pieces and freeze. If using lard, spread on a small plate and freeze. Cut into pieces just before placing in the bowl of the processor. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter or butter and lard. Turn on the processor and immediately pour in the ice water (making sure no pieces of ice are in it). Process JUST until the mixture is combined and forms a crumbly mass. Test by pinching a small piece of dough between two fingers. If it holds its shape, it is ready. Be careful not to over-process.

If making pastry with a pastry cutter or fork, cut the shortening into small pieces and chill well. Put the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl and add the chilled shortening. Cut the shortening into the flour with the cutter or fork until the mixture resembles coarse meal. It’s OK (actually preferable) for there to be little clumps of shortening about the size of small peas. Drizzle 1/3 c. ice water over the mixture and stir with a spatula or spoon until the mixture begins to come together. Do not overwork!! Add more water, a tablespoon at a time if necessary.

Working quickly, turn dough out onto a floured surface. Gather it with your hands into a ball and knead lightly 3 or 4 times with the heel of your hand, just enough to gather the dough into a ball. Divide the dough in half. If making only one crust, flatten the other half of the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for later use.

To pre-bake or partially bake: Preheat the oven to 425°. Roll out the pastry and fit it into the pan. Check to make sure there are no holes or cracks, patching if necessary with extra pastry that’s very lightly brushed with beaten egg or water. Freeze the shell for at least 15 minutes. After freezing, gently press a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil into the bottom and sides with as few wrinkles as possible. Fill with rice or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Pull the corners of the foil inward so they don’t tear the edges of the crust. Grab two corners of the foil in your hands and lift straight up. Brush the bottom and sides with lightly beaten egg and return to the oven. For a partial baking, bake 2 -3 minutes longer until the egg is set. For a fully baked shell, bake an additional 8 – 10 minutes or until lightly browned.

Pie pastry tips

  • Keep all ingredients cold.
  • Remember the goal is making a dough that holds together without completely emulsifying the shortening into the four.
  • Use pans that conduct heat well. Perforated pans work best. Disposable aluminum pie pans actually work well. Punch a few holes in the bottom. Heavy pottery pie dishes are attractive, but usually deliver soggy bottom crusts.
  • Don’t overwork the dough. Handling too much makes the dough tough!
  • Don’t be afraid to patch with pastry scraps brushed lightly with cold water or beaten egg. Patching tears or gaps is always preferable to re-rolling!
  • When rolling the pastry, use just enough flour to keep it from sticking. Dust off excess flour before baking.
  • Make sure there are no cracks in the bottom crust before adding fillings. Patch with dough, or seal with a little beaten egg and a few minutes in the oven.
  • Prebake the bottom crust whenever possible.
  • Seal the bottom crust with beaten egg whenever possible.
  • Pour fillings in just before baking.
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