Crimson coins: shredded beef and scallion soup.

Once upon a time, a poor widow answered a knock on her cottage door and found a wanderer begging for a bite to eat. Despite having little food left for herself, she scraped up what was left in her pantry and made a soup with the last of her butter. The wanderer, only pretending to be destitute, was so touched by the woman’s generosity that he awarded her one gold coin for every speck of butter floating on the surface of the soup. The widow received so much gold that she lived happily ever after.¹

I must have been a foodie even when I was young, because the vision of a layer of tiny golden dots on soup enchanted me. No wonder then that one of my favorite comfort foods is yookgaejang—shredded beef, scallion, and fiddlehead soup—a soup instantly recognizable by its distinctive smattering of red dots floating on a clear, beefy broth. The color comes kochu karu, a coarse Korean chili powder, which stains the floating beef fat and roasted sesame oil bright red. It’s easy to make, amazingly flavorful for so few ingredients, and warmly filling with bowl of sticky white rice. Koreans often eat it in the summer to induce sweating and cooling, but it’s a fine cold-weather soup too.

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A friend brought us a big pot of yookgaejang yesterday. It had been such a long time since I’d tasted it that her gift gave me not just sustenance but memories, comfort, and persistent sniffles (it’s a spicy soup). I’d post a recipe, but I have a confession to make: I rarely cook Korean. Food from other countries gets more attention than the cuisine of my own heritage. It’s a matter of efficiency. When people give you all the Korean food you want, you might as well make curry, paella, and pound cake. I last made yookgaejang ten years ago and can’t remember the exact proportions. But I do remember that it was easy.

yookgaejang2If you’re hankering to try it (and I hope you hanker), there are many recipes online that look about right. Whichever one you try, I would make the following suggestions. First, don’t brown the beef. While I always brown beef in western soups, browning muddies an Asian soup and makes it, well, unAsian. Use a whole cut of meat, not sliced, so that you can shred it after it’s cooked to get that distinct look and beefy chew. Chewy texture is part of the soup’s appeal, so the meat does not need to be cooked for hours to tenderize it. Try to find kosari if you can. The brown dried or water-packed fiddlehead ferns and attached stems add a slippery chewy texture that complements the beef well. Don’t skimp on the kochu karu, make sure to add a glug of roasted sesame oil, and add sufficient salt to taste. If you have time, a gelatinous stock made from unbrowned beef bones will make a truly amazing soup with rich mouthfeel. I prefer to thinly bias-cut my scallions and add them at the last minute, but the version pictured here with thick cooked scallions is common too. It’s a hard soup to screw up.

By the way, there’s a second part to that story. A wicked rich girl in town heard about the widow’s gold and hunted down the wanderer. She dragged him to her kitchen and made him a soup into which she dumped all the butter she had. Then she demanded her fortune. The wanderer, amused, handed her one gold coin. She had put so much butter in the soup that it floated in one big yellow blob.

The moral of the story should be obvious. Don’t use a fatty cut of beef. Stick to a lean, long-grained cut like flank. Chuck is a more economical choice, but make sure to trim as much fat off the beef as possible and skim the fat off the broth well before adding the koch’u karu.

Like most soups, this one reheats well. Grab a box of tissues, don’t wear white, and slurp away.

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¹ If anyone knows the title of this story, please let me know; I couldn’t find it.

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bullet Link du jour
Koreans aren’t the only people who eat hot soup in summer to cool down. Melissa notes that Russians and Jamaicans do it too . . . and it works! Read Soup Days of Summer from the wonderful Traveler’s Lunchbox.

Asian pear pie: Annie battles the pastry demon.

I made my first pie crust at the tender age of 14 armed with a local church cookbook, a rolling pin, and a stick of margarine. Yes, margarine. Did I mention that I was 14? My dough, instead of becoming a circle, become California, Texas, and at the worst point, both halves of Michigan. The pastry demon told me to just fold it back over and try again because, after all, a perfect circle was a good circle. It made sense at the time. When the dough got dry around the edges, he told me to add more water. In the back of my mind I vaguely remembered someone somewhere saying something about how you shouldn’t overwork pie dough, but my demon laughed it off as an old wives’ tale and told me to fold my Florida into a Virginia for another round of violent rolling, which I did. (Incidentally, old wives generally make good pies.)

The result? Double-crusted denim apple pie: cooked apples on and under layers of off-white extra rugged denim, weatherproof and completely impervious to both kitchen utensils and teeth. I think my mother’s response was, “This is . . . pie?” The trauma of that “pie” would endure for eighteen years. Every pie or tart that I made thereafter featured a press-in crust, a crumb crust, or a store bought crust. Clearly my fear ran deep.

[Pictured: Freeform Asian pear pie in glass pie plate]

Asian pear pie

Three years ago I decided to conquer my demon. I made two pastry cloths out of spare canvas, bought a tapered rolling pin, and dusted off a pair of 9-inch Pyrex glass pie plates. Oddly, I became obsessed with Indian cooking instead. Two years ago I studied the learned texts of Brown and Corriher and studied recipes to compile data on shortening vs. lard vs. butter vs. oil vs. cream cheese. Strangely, I started making homemade ice creams instead. One year ago I bought a 10-inch deep dish pie pan, a pastry fork, and two sets of pie shields. Funnily enough, I started baking lots of cakes instead.

One week ago my copy of Pie by Ken Haedrich arrived. One day ago my aunt dropped off an entire bucket of Asian pears from her Asian pear tree, which seems nice until you learn that our own Asian pear tree has several buckets of Asian pears waiting to be picked and she knows that. Rather than give her a bucket of our pears in revenge (I considered it), I decided that it was time to make pear pie. The demon had to go.

I picked a freeform pie style inspired by one of Haedrich’s pie recipes. Unlike a galette, which is a freeform pie baked on a flat pan, this pie is made in a pie pan with a single crust 13 inches wide. The excess edges of the crust are folded over the top of the filling, leaving a large center hole. It was the perfect choice because it eliminated my least favorite part of pie—the thick, dry, overbrowned edges. In addition, it wasted no dough via trimming, I could focus on roling just one dough instead of two, and the single crust lightened the overall calorie content of the pie. Finally, and best of all, the seamless edges contained the filling so that I didn’t have to worry about sticky spillover. The only downside was the rustic appearance of the crust, but who cares? It’s pie!

I wrote out a checklist of equipment and prepared my mise en place. Remembering some of Alton Brown’s advice, I stashed two quarter-sheet pans in the freezer (half sheet pans won’t fit) to chill the rolled dough should it get too soft. I whisked my dry ingredients in a bowl, cut up some cold butter and cold trans-fat free shortening on a plate, and set everything inside the fridge. A while later I pulled the cold bowl of flour out of the fridge and rubbed my hands on the bowl to cool my fingers.

asian pearThen the fat hit the flour.

My demon laughed and pointed. Biscuit and scone skills gave the confidence to work the fat into the flour, but adding the scant bit of water made me so nervous that I might have underdone it. After an hour’s rest though, the dough seemed fine. I set it on floured wax paper (I’ll try my pastry cloth next time) and turned the paper counterclockwise after every two swipes of my rolling pin. To my amazement, the dough rolled out into a circle, not Florida or Maine. I set the frozen sheet pans on top of the dough whenever it seemed to get too warm. Then I finally nestled the dough into the plate and put it in back into the refrigerator.

While my demon had a cup of coffee and picked at his claws, I turned on the oven and cored and sliced enough unpeeled pears to make five cups and mixed them with sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice (for tartness), and vanilla (I decided against cinnamon to keep from overwhelming the pears). I mounded the fruit on my precious crust, folded the dough over the edges, and brushed the dough with a mixture of the leftover liquid from the bowl of pears and milk. A light sprinkle of demerara sugar topped off the crust, and the pie went into the oven. An hour later, as my demon smoked a cigarette, I pulled out a bubbling pie.

We ate the pie after dinner. The taste was . . . did I mention that this is my first pie since age 14? Well the taste of the pears was lovely, but it seems that fresh Asian pears stay very crunchy even when baked for an hour. I think next time I’ll try macerating the pears in pear brandy, sugar, and lemon juice overnight then reduce the juices to a syrup. Or I’ll pre-bake the crust and pour a cooked filling into the shell then top it with a delicate streusel. Then again I might be making things complicated—chopping the pears into a very fine dice might do the trick. Or maybe paper thin slices would be a wiser . . . well this is a post and recipe for the future. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

The important thing is that the pie tasted good. The crust was flaky, browned nicely, and while not as tender as I would have liked, didn’t require sewing shears to eat. I had the basics down well enough to make even better pies in the future. My demon folded up his newspaper, stood with a sigh, and shook my hand. He then left to terrorize budding bakers elsewhere.

So he’s gone, just like the pie (my cousin came over to share). I’m left with crumbs and the memory of my pie cooling in front of the window. The off-center crust covered one side of the pie more than the other side. The skins on the pears had shriveled in the heat, the juices had splattered and blackened on the edges of the glass, and patches of white crust showed signs of underbaking. It needed improvement. But the hot flour and butter filled the entire house with that familiar fresh-baked fragrance that makes people drop what they’re doing and run to the source with a fork in hand. I made that smell. It took only 18 years to do it.

I smiled sheepishly down at my crooked creation, embarrassed by my pride. It was the most beautiful pie I’d ever seen.