Sunday, January 12, 2014

Perfecting pie crust, and politics -- regardless

How many times, dear things, have we bought and eaten a fruit pie that was only a glum approximation of a pie? You'll recognize the symptoms: a flat, thick, greasy brown top crust, a filling of sweet sludge in which possibly five or six pieces of underripe, undercooked peach or apple, or a few cherries, glumly float. A bottom crust of which the less said the better. And we know pie can be better than this, if only because we have seen gorgeous photographs of flaky light pastry the color of spun gold trembling to contain an orchard's worth of delicately spiced and juicy fruits, in the pages of gourmet books and magazines. And only there. Too often, even professional bakeries cannot do what they should. 

If you love pie you might think of attempting the miracle at home. More power to you, but be warned. Cookbook and magazine authors who reassure you that pie-making is not difficult are being kind. It is tricky, and you will only get a "knack" through practice and, in my case, through the consulting, at long last and by sheer chance, of an authority which finally laid down some new and sensible rules. It was an "Aha!" pie making moment. And don't we all want those?

It's kind of like, you must know, an "Aha" political moment. If the briefest of digressions is permissible, I'll ask -- do you think the recent election was such a moment? Is it true, as some people maintain, that the victor of two weeks ago, liberalism, is a religion more than anything else? If so then that is bad news for the Republican party, and for people who wish their conservatism somehow to enjoy political representation in the public square. For of course, a campaigning religion will paradoxically not respond to political argument. Try it. For example, ask a liberal friend: "What is Solyndra?" They will likely find the question irrelevant. Faith in world sorrow, outrage at injustice is what matters. 

I had a professor who startled me when I was nineteen by saying that a society can have either freedom or equality, but not both. "If people are free, they are free to be unequal. Equality has to be enforced," he said. Freedom is a focused status -- either I can do what I want, or I can't -- which may be seen and grasped and lost and fought for and argued about through politics. Equality is a kaleidoscopic abstraction  -- world sorrow, "life isn't fair, and that's wrong" -- to be yearned for, mourned over, imposed, believed in, defined and redefined each day. Political voters go to the polls thinking of tangibles like unemployment and entitlement spending. The liberal faithful, devoted to equality and above argument, go to the same polls, I fear, uninterested in anything except the chance to assert right thinking and to poke the infidel beast in the eye.

This time, the beast was "Mitt the Shit." (I was amazed at the blithe fury my young relatives' Facebook pages. They have never actually met him.) In four more years, his shape will have changed but the faithful, gnostics (holders of hidden knowledge) to a man and to a woman, will still hate him. And if they are the country's majority, then their religion may be ever unbeatable in the mere political arena. If they are the majority then any candidate for any party may have to bow to the heavenly abstractions of liberal progressivism, if he wants to chase even the breath of a hope of a career. And even if he gets one, what then? Shall he attempt to do old fashioned things, like wheel and deal and compromise over politics, the "noble adventure"? Politics? Old fashioned habits like this, "political wrangling," are going to seem so cold and mean in comparison to the faith. Imagine! "Wrangling!" -- when there's sorrow. When folks are suffering. I wonder if the pagans of classical antiquity felt something like the way conservatives do now, as Christianity slowly chlorofomed all other thought. There are grave and portentous differences, of course, between Christianity and modern progressivism, not least of which is that Christians acknowledged a God above themselves, but there must have been also the same back-of-the-hand dismissal of all knowledge and human experience up to the year of the divine Birth, and the same authoritarian browbeating of anyone who asked for cold, unfeeling nuance or context in a changed world.   

Yet we all still need to eat. (If I were an acerbic dowager à la Maggie Smith's Lady Grantham, I would at this point say, we need to find a way to live a meaningful life even though our leaders and our fellow citizens wreak havoc on us through their heavenly foolishness. Though that seems harsh, -- and, with regard to ancient Christianity, out of context.) But because we must eat I begin to understand, just perhaps, why old civilizations make such a to-do about food. I remember the story, in the strange classic cookbook The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, of the young French girl, one of the Auberge's later owners -- Mademoiselle Ray I think -- despondent because the Nazi occupation of her country looked to be making it impossible for her to collect the necessaries for her family's traditional Christmas terrine. March had already come, and where on earth was she to get I don't know what, the calves' feet for the decorative aspic, the brandy to soak the raisins, and so on.

Her father saves the day. He comes home one lowering afternoon, that very March, leading a cow. "She was a pregnant cow." A pregnant cow meant a calf near Christmas, therefore calves' feet, therefore calves' foot jelly. "My terrine was saved." The stout patriot safely removed from the fray might ask, why on earth weren't you out in the woods with the partisans circa 1942, instead of worrying about holiday treats? But who knows? Whatever that family's tale of imposed havoc, they had to eat. Denizens of an old civilization, perhaps they were wise and human, humane, to think especially about that terrine. Or, perhaps it's merely mathematically true that old civilizations, suffering much and responsible for much, also happen to have accumulated a lot of recipes.

Regardless. We were talking about needing to eat and about pie, wasn't it? Allow me to shade in a few details.

For years I trusted, tried, and raged against a basic recipe for a 2-crust pie from my most-used kitchen bible, Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Are you ready? It goes like this. Combine:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
Cut in with a pastry blender or two knives:
  • 2/3 cup shortening
When the mixture resembles coarse meal or tiny peas, sprinkle over it:
  • 1/3 cup ice water, 1 Tablespoon at a time.
Mix lightly only until the dough holds together when pressed gently into a ball. After this, you are ready to roll it out and fill and bake the pie.

Blessings on Marion Cunningham, and may she rest in peace. She died in July 2012, at the age of ninety. But my response to this is "Um, not likely." I have never been able to conjure these ingredients in such a way that a scant 1/3 cup of water moistens 2 cups of flour. And, sprinkling in the water 1 Tablespoon at a time, mixing after each addition, would seem to directly contradict the other important instruction she and all authorities give, namely not to overhandle pie dough lest it grow tough. "Treat it firmly, not timidly, but don't fuss with it."

Oh, I stopped fussing with it. I almost stopped trying to make pies at all, and the few times I did, I kept extremely calm and simply picked up the dry pieces of dough as they shredded there on the table, or fell off the rolling pin. I layered them into my pie plate and carried on with the fruit and the baking. The results were glum. 

Then came my Aha! pastry moment. By sheer luck I discovered Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia [Child, of course]. And there I found my new pie crust recipe. "If you could have only one pie dough in your repertoire, it would have to be this one," she writes. A lot of cookbook authors say that about a lot of things, but here the lady happens to be right.

Baking with Julia's perfect pie dough
  • 5 and 1/4 cups pastry or all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbs. salt
  • 1 and 1/2 sticks cold butter, cut in small pieces
  • 1 and 1/4 cups chilled vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup ice water
Note: the recipe makes enough for two double-crust pies or four single-crust tarts. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut in the butter either with a pastry blender or your fingertips, and then cut in the shortening in the same way. When the dough looks like crumbs or "small curds," use a wooden spoon to stir in the ice water all at once. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, knead it only slightly, then wrap it in plastic wrap and and put it in the refrigerator to chill for at least two hours. Then it will be ready to roll out and use as desired.What you don't immediately need will keep well-wrapped in the freezer for about a month.

Here are our "Aha" pie making moments: the use of butter (for flavor) as well as shortening (for flakiness), and proportionally a lot of both; the stirring in of what seems a properly copious amount of ice water -- no dribbles and drops, no delicate tossing after each addition of a scant Tablespoon; finally, the long chilling of the dough. During that time of course you will prepare your filling, which is nothing but fruit and sugar, and you will have time to marvel at how simple the concept of fruit pie is after all. It requires fewer ingredients than cake- or cookie-baking, and there is no fuss over nut-chopping, preparing pans, adding liquid ingredients by thirds, the whipping of egg whites or the boiling of frostings. Small wonder that biographies of pioneer women tell us Mrs. Wyoming or whoever routinely had time to "bake a dozen pies before breakfast."

One more thing. Absent a pastry cutter or a fork, professionals seem obsessed with only permitting us to handle pie dough with the tips of our fingers. (I defy you.) The reason seems to be to avoid warming the dough with our whole hand, melting the chilled butter and ruining the chance for a delicate result (since it is the little crumbs and pieces of butter and flour that bake up to flakiness). I say, use your whole hand, just as you do when making shortcrust doughs you don't "fuss with." Think lemon bars. Getting in there and tussling with the dough enables you to feel it start to turn moist and crumbly as it should. I find the speed obtained from this handling avoids the toughness that comes from too much fiddling with a fork. Professionals will smile, but I give you permission to sacrifice a little spun-gold perfection thereby.

And now you know all. Get out there, dear things, and make a pie, and live that meaningful life. Regardless. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for stopping by ...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...