Lard!!! What is it good for?

While Texas will never be accused of intellectual elitism, it remains the vanguard of lard

Making a perfectly flaky pie crust can seem - like a mousse that keeps its head or a homemade gravy without lumps - akin to playing the violin with the Royal Philharmonic: out of reach of most mere mortals. But, like most culinary feats, the secret lies in quality ingredients, attention to detail, and knowing when to stop. In the case of pie crust, it's knowing when to stop blending the fat into the flour; the little intact balls of fat melt in the hot oven, fast enough to leave little pockets of air in their place. Those little pockets of air, of course, produce the coveted flakiness. Mmmmmm.

Back in the day, lard was the fat of choice (and often the only fat readily and cheaply available). Solid at room temperature with enough resilience to stand up to a pastry cutter, lard also produces an unparallelled latte-colored crust with just the right touch of golden flakiness on top (it also makes the moistest cakes and cookies that don't spread too much in the oven). Crusts and biscuits made with lard also have wonderful "mouth feel," that silky coating on the tongue and palate left in the wake of flavorful oils. Too much of it, of course, leaves another kind of coating on your arteries, hence its almost wholesale replacement by shortening and margarine.

Modern lard doesn't bear much resemblance to the old fashion, butcher- or home-rendered variety, which was usually pale yellow in color and possessed a faint but distinct odor and flavor, says Quincy Hobson of Premium Standard Farms, which produces lard for Smithfield Farms and other food manufacturers and distributors. Their product, rendered from the white fat on hogs, is heated and goes through a series of filters, removing sediments that used to remain in the finished product. "It looks basically like a container of Cool Whip," he says, "like you could dig a spoon right in. I'm not sure I'd try that, though."

Mom's old fashion pie crust

3 c flour
1 t salt
1 c lard
1/3 c ice water
1 t sugar

Dissolve the sugar in the ice water. Blend together the flour and salt. Using a pastry cutter or a dull knife, cut the lard into the flour mixture until it is crumbly and the lard pieces are roughly pea-sized. Slowly add ice water until the mixture just begins to hang together. Separate into thirds, form into balls or discs, and wrap in plastic wrap (each ball will make one 9-inch pie crust). Can be used immediately (chill in refrigerator before rolling out) or frozen for up to three months.

Connie Shepphard, Texas A&M Bexar County Extension Agent for Family Consumer Science, wouldn't try it, either. The so-called barnyard fats, including lard, butter, and - especially delicious for frying potatoes - duck fat, are high in saturated fats, long known to cause heart disease and related problems in homo epicureans. But the FDA reports that recent studies show that trans fats, the man-made fats that turn liquid vegetable oils into lard substitutes such as Crisco, also increase levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. Nonetheless, says Shepphard, "The shortening is still going to be the better choice," when a liquid oil like (relatively healthy) sesame or olive won't do. "The saturated fat in lard outweighs the benefit of using it." Don't hate the messenger, though; she gives some dispensation. "What we say at holiday times, if you're making a 'memory' recipe, and you're only going to make it once a year, go ahead and make it. The next day make it up with a salad, and remember, all things in moderation."

Trans fats or no, hydrogenated shortening is still what gives the pastries at Central Market their lift. With vegetarian customers and religious dietary prohibitions, says Bakery Leader Gail Gray, "It would be a mine field," if they reincorporated lard. But she insists you can make a respectable pie crust with Crisco. "The trick is to get the right fat to flour ratio. The other thing is not to handle `the dough` too much."

If you're not a vegetarian, Gray recommends using a blend of Crisco for flakiness and butter for flavor, but whichever solid fat substitute you use should be at least 80 percent fat; any less, and you won't get enough "lift."

Start with the butter a little chilled because it can melt when it's worked at room temperature, especially if you use a food processor to pulse the fat and flour together. It's also a good idea to chill the pie dough before you roll it out because "if your fat melts, it's all over," reminds Gray. You'll end up with a sodden, chewy crust.

Central Market may not be doing the purchasing, but lard sales, which reached their nadir three years ago at Smithfield, are on the rise again. "What'll really bring it back is the labeling with trans fats," says Smithfield rep Jim Hobble. By January 2006, brands such as Parkay Margarine, which have appeared healthier by leaving trans fats off the label, will be required to 'fess up. Premium Standard moves in excess (excess seems to be the right word here) of 10 to 12 million pounds a year and, Hobble reports, the Latino market has been growing. "Miami, Texas, a lot of it goes into Mexico." (Phone calls to local panaderias and tamale makers were not returned, which may have had something to do with disbelief that anyone might want to write anything remotely positive about lard.)

The Lone Star state may be in the lard vanguard, but nobody slaughters hogs in San Antonio any more, says Mike Kiolbassa of the popular sausage company, which gave it up about a year ago. Even Hamilton-based Pederson's, manufacturers of "natural" pork products, directed us back to Smithfield. So, if lard does make a big comeback, folks like Hobson and Hobble might have a corner on the market. It'll be just like the Hunt brothers circa 1980 all over again, but this time the lucre will be greased lightning.

By Elaine Wolff

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