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October 15, 2008 2:16 PM

Praise the lard -- and pass the pie

Posted by Nancy Leson

Today on my radio show Food for Thought, my pal Stein and I chewed the fat about leaf lard, discussing what it is (the precious fat surrounding a pig's kidneys), where you can buy it (I'll get to that in a minute) and why anyone in their right mind would willingly ingest something as grotesque looking as this:

Here's the short -- and incredibly flaky -- answer:

Having read food writer Melissa Clark's trial-by-error tale of finding pie-crust perfection -- thanks to a pig and its kidney-fat -- I've long had a hankering to perfect my own pie-making skills by injecting my crust with some leaf lard love. This fall, I finally got around to doing so, and was rendered speechless with success, thanks to these fine pork products:

The first time I made pastry using Clark's "perfect crust" formula (70 percent unsalted butter, 30 percent leaf lard), I used rendered lard purchased at the Sea Breeze Farm stall at the University District Farmers Market. The 8-ounce jar cost $7. Consulting my favorite pie recipe (Old-fashioned Bottom-Crust Apple Pie, from my much-stained Martha Stewart's "Quick Cook") I fashioned a couple of tiny tarts. But first I tweaked the recipe to account for the lard in 70/30 measure -- and for the fact that this summer we'd harvested, pitted and frozen these. . .

. . .intent on using the beloved fruit of our Montmorency trees for moments such as this one . . .

Those tarts, layered with apples, cherries and a sprinkle of cinnamon-sugar, were the start of a pie-making frenzy. One that required additional lard. And that's when I decided to save some money and render the stuff myself. Finding whole leaf lard isn't easy (or at least I didn't think it was until I ran into Jon Rowley last week and he said, "I have two words for you: "Dietrich's Meats"). But I've twice scored with a hunk of frozen fat from the folks at Samish Bay Cheese (first at the Edmonds Farmers Market and last week at the U-District farmer's market). You might try your local specialty butcher:

I cut the lard into pieces, pulverized it in my Cuisinart, schmeared it into a roasting pan and slowly rendered the fat in the oven for a couple of hours at about 250-degrees. Next, I poured the rendered riches through a fine sieve into a canning jar, snacked on the cracklings (my Bubbie would have called those gribenes) and -- Praise the lard! -- turned about ten bucks worth of fat, sinew and je ne sais quoi into a quart of liquid gold:

Last weekend, I baked a pie with some of the most extraordinary apples I've ever tasted -- terrifically tart Prairie Spy -- purchased at the University District Farmers Market, as was another two pounds of frozen leaf lard, now holding court next the Ziploc'd cherries in my downstairs freezer:

And if you're wondering how it tasted once baked, allow me to quote Melissa Clark who had this to say in her ode to odious-looking pig fat:

"Carefully confected with part butter and part freshly rendered lard, this pie pastry was everything baking-book authors and bloggers wax poetic about: a golden-brown-around-the-edges epiphany richly flavored and just salty enough to contrast with the sweet apple filling, the texture as flaky as a croissant but still crisp. It shattered when you bit it, then melted instantly on the tongue."

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