vendredi 23 novembre 2012

Keeping the apple pie tradition on the table

This quarter (see photo below) of what was just yesterday a whole apple pie may not look all that impressive to you, but consider this: it was made by two people who have, up until now, left the making and baking of desserts to other, more qualified, bakers.

My excuse has always been that I lived in Paris for 20 years. And that's a pretty good excuse. When you live in the heart of a city that boasts a pâtisserie (and a pharmacie) every 50 meters, why would you ever want or need to make a dessert? The only person I know in Paris who actually has been known to make desserts for his invités is my friend Pierre, who was married to my friend and fellow translator Cathleen. Cathleen, who died a couple of years ago, was diabetic, and her husband Pierre managed her diabetes by managing her menu planning and food preparation. Pierre retired long ago from the EDF, where he worked as a lawyer. But he has never retired from his vocations, which are painting, writing poetry and cooking beautiful, elaborate meals, served in Pierre and Cathleen's apartment in the 13th. It is a magical place, literally stuffed with books, art and knick knacks of all kinds. The kitchen is so full of utensils and stuff you can't see inside. But I digress. The point is, I had no reason to ever pick up a rolling pin during my formative potential adult dessert baking years, spent in Shanghai and then Paris. I can assure you, I sampled some exquisite desserts during this period.

Walt's excuse up until recently was his mother, an extraordinary baker who excelled at all kinds of cookies, pies and cakes. She set the impossible standard for desserts, and she did so effortlessly. Well, I'm sure she sweated during the process, but all we ever saw was the result. She would sometimes engage in self-criticism, but we would shush her up between bites by waving our forks. No, we would say, it's fabulous your apple pie. Or blackberry pie. Or whatever. Jo Cougan died in mid-October, but we have had her personalized glass pie dish, with her name ("Made with Love From Jo's Kitchen") emblazoned on the bottom. When Walt said he wished someone from my family had made an apple pie for our Thanksgiving last Sunday, I sensed a wistful tone. We agreed that we would never again be the privileged recipients of one of Jo Cougan's pies and that we needed to do something to keep the tradition alive.

I suggested that we try, as a joint venture, to make an apple pie to take with us to the Thanksgiving meal we had been invited to share with friends in Anacortes. So the two of us went out in search of ingredients to bake an apple pie. We should have started earlier, but we did passably well considering the late hour. Now I know: our unsalted butter should have been a bit colder. And Christina, our hostess for dinner, suggested that we chill the bowl in which the crust is made. Fantastic idea! She learned that when she worked at an ice cream store where one of her jobs was to make certain desserts. Also, a word about the top crust. That didn't come out as I was planning. I got overly ambitious and had visions of lattices dancing in my head. But I got a little distracted by the filling, which Walt was in charge of, while making the top crust (since the pie itself was an afterthought, we had not made enough crust for the top) and, as a result, left it sitting in its rolled out state a little too long. Something weird happened to the dough and it formed little patches that refused to come together as one. So we decided to call it a "patchy" apple pie and put the patches on top. That name evolved into "Apache" Apple Pie, which seems fitting on this particular holiday, wherein America turns its slaughter of the indigenous population into an orgy of eating followed by a hysteria-driven shopping frenzy.

A word about the filling: at Walt's insistence, we used granny smith apples and one cameo. We added sugar, brown sugar, a little salt and the required amount of flour. The recipe I found online, confidently titled "Perfect Apple Pie", called for lemon juice, which we did not have on hand. So we used the juice of half an orange instead, which gave me the idea that a little grand marnier would be a nice touch. We also added cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. I think that's all.

The "Apache" Apple Pie
The result: Our pie did not look like Jo's pies. The top crust looked like it had a case of shingles. But it passed the taste test. The filling was heavenly, our fellow diners all agreed it was, and our crust tasted right. But I know we can do better, with colder butter, a cold bowl and more patient rolling out of the dough. Walt is very competitive and would probably go so far as to try and surpass his mommy in the pie department. Let him dream! In the meantime, a pie "Made with Love from Jo's Kitchen" gracing our Thanksgiving table brought a little slice of Jo back.

On a related note, recently we spent a long weekend in Las Vegas, where we had the good fortune to NOT spend a minute in the casinos after one night at the MGM Grand for a fundraiser/birthday party. Our old friend Lisa Lundt lives there with her family, and she graciously offered to show us the non-casino side of LV and the area. On Saturday, the day after Dia De Los Muertos, after visiting the fantastic new neon "boneyard" museum in the Fremont section, we visited the Springs Preserve, which is both a park and a museum in Vegas. The outdoor part of the Preserve was dotted with publicly created altars and catrinas honoring the dead. And there were lots of cool sugar skulls, like the ones below. All of the alters featured the favorite food, drink and, in some cases, smokables of the departed loved ones for whom they were lovingly and painstakingly created. Anyone who has ever taken part in a Mexican Dia De Los Muertos celebration knows how colorful, upbeat and almost hallucinatory they are. I kept seeing ghosts among the living as we walked from altar to altar. I would do a double-take and they would be gone. I certainly felt the presence of Jo, and I know Walt did too. It suddenly hit me - simultaneously - that she was both gone forever and yet among us. She lives on in the pies we will make and in all the things she created and loved during her generous life. This year, I give thanks for having had the opportunity of knowing her. I grabbed a little notepad she was using when she died. On the cover and on every otherwise blank page, it says When Life Becomes a Roller Coaster, Climb into the Front Seat, Throw Your Arms in the Air and Enjoy the Ride. I also grabbed a paper weight on which is written NEVER NEVER NEVER QUIT - Winston Churchill. And I can say for a fact that she never did.