“Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.” ~ New York Times, May 3, 1902 (from “Pie & Whiskey”)
I fancy myself a respectable baker, but pie is my Achilles heel. Cakes, cookies and breads are a breeze. Cheesecakes, even–a speciality of mine. But pie? Pie strikes fear in this baker’s heart.
Most baking is chemistry. Dry and wet ingredients, precisely measured and weighed. Fat for a tender crumb, leavening for lightness. Eggs, yeast, baking powder or soda. A specific formula mixed together and then, heat and time. A bit of love and attention.
I love the process of baking.
And yet each November, I dread and struggle with my simple Thanksgiving pumpkin and pecan pies. Single crust, what could go wrong?
Everything. Every damn thing.
Pie dough that cracks and splits as I attempt to transfer it to the pie dish. Too thick, too tough, lousy flavor. I’ve tried every “no fail” pie crust recipe with every “secret” ingredient and failed every single time. I bought a fancy marble slab to roll dough on. A heavy-duty pastry blender. A stainless steel rolling pin, kept chilled in the freezer. Once or twice, I cheated and sheepishly used the pre-made pie crusts already rolled out between waxed paper in the refrigerated grocery store cases. The results were uniformly dreadful.
Enter “Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze”. If there had ever been a book that spoke directly to my soul, it was this.
A Christmas gift from my son, “Pie & Whiskey” is a collection of writing about, well–pie and whiskey. Born in 2012 in Spokane, Washington, Pie & Whiskey began as a reading event where writers gathered to read and listen to each other’s prose, accompanied by some good booze and freshly baked sweets. Five years later, a collection of essays and recipes was published into book form and landed in my floury hands.
I was immediately smitten. And inspired.
Paging through the essays, I learned an important point about pie: although making pie is baking, to do it well requires less precision and far more poetry. Making pie crust is a feel, a sense, an intuitive process. I had been going about it all wrong.
My dear friend and cooking comrade, Erin, turned me on to another resource, Art Of The Pie. Its founder, Kate McDermott, lives in Port Angeles and is the author of “Art Of The Pie” as well as another cookbook coming out in the fall of 2018. Her website is packed with reassuring instructions on pie making, including her recipe for pie crust. As I read through the recipe, I noticed a familiar theme. Simple, high-quality ingredients, no fancy equipment needed. Clean hands, warm heart and a whole lotta soul.
Pi Day came around last week and I was inspired to give my renewed pie hope a test drive. I chose rhubarb because it’s my favorite. With no fresh rhubarb yet in the stores, I found a bag of frozen fruit that I figured would work just fine. I studied Kate’s encouraging recipe. I chilled my ingredients. I gave myself a pep talk and got to work.
My pastry blender stayed in the drawer as I dove in with my bare hands, rubbing flour into butter until I had small bits of dough. I sprinkled ice water into the bowl and again, used my hands to mix until the dough just began to hold a shape. I wrapped two “chubby disks” of pie dough in plastic and tossed them in the fridge to rest. I exhaled.
An hour later, I began to roll. Kate assures me that pie dough wants to please me, so I kept a running banter with my dough, encouraging and coaxing, reassuring it of my belief in its success. It didn’t crack, it didn’t stick and I was able to drape the bottom crust gently in the plate and let it relax into its shape. I sprinkled flour and sugar over the crust, added the fruit, more flour and sugar and lightly blanketed it all with the top crust. I cooed soft, kind words and fluted the edges. The pie slid into the oven. I exhaled again.
The crust? Magnificent. The pie? A resounding flop.
Between the frozen fruit and my misbehaving oven, the filling was dotted with chunks of uncooked rhubarb. Biting into uncooked rhubarb is an unhappy surprise. Much of the fruit was still firm and hadn’t been cooked down into its typical soft-tart-sweet-thick filling.The crust though! Beautiful and golden. Flaky and buttery. Almost perfect.
I decided to deem my efforts a success, even with its tough, partially baked, fruity flaws.
This year is Tracie’s Year Of The Pie. I might even spring for one of Kate’s Pie Day Camp Workshops. Armed with my Costco-sized jug of Bulleit Bourbon and a few reliable pie mentors, I can’t wait to see what comes out of the oven.
If pie is the food of the heroic, let’s all be heroes.
TWO: CORNED BEEF
Every St. Patrick’s Day, my mother made corned beef and cabbage. I’m not sure why, considering our Scandinavian DNA, but it showed up on the dinner table like clockwork each March. Stringy meat with weird globs of fat and a watery broth filled with limp cabbage and soft carrots. The only redeeming thing on my plate were the little red potatoes that sat beside the rest. The next day, I’d find a corned beef sandwich in my lunch, smeared with mayo and grainy mustard. Lifted out of the previous night’s nondescript soup, the corned beef sandwich was my favorite part of our lackluster St. Patrick’s Day observations.
Once I had a couple of young kids of my own, I did the same thing. Without thinking much about it, I tossed a brisket in my shopping cart each March, added a head of green cabbage, a bag of red potatoes and a couple of carrots. My kitchen filled with the familiar fragrance of the corned beef, braising in a briny bath for hours in the oven, served with the same thin, pale broth. And every year, my reaction was the same. Meh. Sometimes I’d toss the leftovers out, pausing only briefly to wonder why I made this same uninspired, unenjoyable meal year after year.
Why do we do the things we do?
It was only four years ago that I had the epiphany that I didn’t have to ever make corned beef and cabbage again. Sometimes I am a slow learner.
Knowing that the Mister was built from some sturdy Irish stock and therefore my kids, too, I was still compelled to acknowledge St. Patrick’s Day. For a few years, instead of corned beef, I brewed a pot of thick, Irish stew followed by a rich Guinness chocolate cake. Much better, I thought. Last week, I was strolling through Costco during sample time and tried a bite of the pre-cooked corned beef they were hawking for the holiday. And just like that, the familiar taste, the Marches of my youth, all that corned beef came flashing back into my memory.
I kinda liked it.
I didn’t buy the pre-cooked, microwaveable stuff I had sampled, but found the brisket just around the corner and stuck it in my cart. I chuckled at myself for doing it again, but decided this year, I’d do it differently.
A new recipe–one that doesn’t immerse the meat in water for hours, but a roast cooked slow and low in just a wee bit of Guinness stout and vinegar. A lid of garlic, sugar and spices and slid under the broiler at the very end to create a crisp crust. Cabbage, sliced into steaks, brushed with olive oil and roasted until the edges darken and caramelize. A few potatoes, steamed and mashed with cauliflower to round things out. No watery broth, no lifeless cabbage in sight. It was the best St. Paddy’s meal I’ve ever had.
Tradition. Reimagined and improved, mindfully.
THREE: THE MORAL OF THE STORY
So why do we do the things we do?
Every once in awhile, I’ll notice an interview with a young woman–perhaps the celebrity of the hour, maybe 30-ish or not quite. She’ll talk confidently about self-discovery and how she is making strong, brave decisions now that she is an evolved, mature woman. She has finally come into her own, she’ll announce.
And I’ll think, well, good for you. And then I’ll also think, but really?
All the women’s magazines I was still reading in my twenties assured me that my thirties was where it was at. I’d come into my own and be flush with confidence. The reality was my thirties were spent raising two young humans and adjusting to life in the foreign world of a stay-at-home mom. There wasn’t any part of me coming into my own. I couldn’t have told you what my own was. I spent that decade scrambling to be a decent mom, a good partner and fit nicely into to my very suburban neighborhood. I played a role, of sorts. The truth was I hadn’t found myself at all, but was getting lost much deeper in the woods.
In my forties, I tumbled into a heady love affair with yoga which began to reconnect me to myself. But even then, whatever rare free time I had was spent chanting kirtan with groups of yoga friends and draping myself in mala beads and om shantis. I wasn’t sure why or really what I was doing. But I desperately wanted to fit in. I wanted a tribe. To belong. I spent money on the right yoga clothes, the right mat, workshops with yogalebrities and teacher trainings that wrung me out and left me as limp as a wet noodle.
I still made the damned corned beef and cabbage every March. And I couldn’t tell you why.
Yoga began the journey back to myself but it also led me down the slippery slope of saying yes. “Be a yes!” was a familiar refrain throughout much of my teacher training. Even the now-despised Lululemon bags were emblazoned with pseudo-spiritual platitudes that encouraged (mostly) women to say yes to everything. Saying yes was the road to fulfillment. Enlightenment, even. When I began to question that philosophy, I was told I was growing cynical and closed-minded.
Just say yes! Really though?
It’s only recently that I’ve discovered the power that comes from a well-placed no, thank you. Saying no doesn’t make a person closed off. Saying no when something just isn’t right creates healthy boundaries. Growing older gives us the gift of experience–we learn to trust what feels good and right and fulfilling rather than constantly questioning our instincts or worse, believing we don’t deserve to feel good and right and fulfilled. We learn to identify what depletes us and how to say no without apology. I’ll admit I’m a late bloomer, but I’m not sure most of us have that capacity at thirty. Maybe not even forty. This life stuff takes time and introspection.
Why do we do things we do? How much of our time is spent creating a life we think we should want rather than taking time to mindfully consider what it is that genuinely curls our toes?
How long are you going to keep making the same corned beef, year after year?
I’m happy to report I don’t care so much about fitting in anymore. Sometimes my tribe is a party of one or two and that suits me fine. I make the corned beef because I took what I liked and made it into something much better. Kirtans don’t really float my boat anymore–and maybe they never really did. A mindful, well-timed no, thank you opens up space for more honest and enthusiastic yes, pleases.
Like pie, life yields the best results when intuitive. Less precision, more poetry.
I don’t know about you, but this is my Year Of The Pie.