Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Easy as Pie

A few weeks ago Kathryn, an intern at Sandhill this summer, was thinking ahead to a visit she was going to make to St Louis. Anticipating that she'd be seeing a special friend on his birthday she wanted to honor his request for a real mincemeat pie, but was despairing of where to she'd be able to find filling that actually contained meat. Not expecting a response, she was gobsmacked to discover that I had some in the root cellar—which underscores the potency of the adage, if you don't ask, the answer is "no."

One the many benefits of living on a farm is that a person has the time and ingredients to work with old recipes. It's the original slow food. Part of my personal legacy is an association with traditional English cuisine that I was introduced to by association with my mother's older sister, Aunt Hennie. Through her, I learned to appreciate plum pudding, fruitcake, mincemeat, and red currant jelly with roast beef. 

Inspired by her example, I've maintained a bucket of homemade mincemeat for the past 30 years. As it takes about a decade to use up a batch, I keep the mixture well-preserved in the cool temperatures of the root cellar, sitting quietly in a bucket with a tight lid. Every time I take some out, I liberally dose the remainder with brandy, port, or sherry. Bugs and/or putrefaction never have a chance.

When Kathryn thanked me profusely for producing a few pints of this precious aged concoction—to which she only needed to add equal parts of fresh chopped apples to have a delicious mincemeat filling—I told her it was my pleasure to share. It's all part of the simple country life, or at least my version of it.

When Kathryn returned from her visit, I asked how the birthday went and was dismayed to learn that she encountered yet more challenges. She was unsure of her footing with pie crust from scratch, and had a balky oven to boot. Uh oh. The crust was tough (too much water and/or overworked dough) and they burned the top on the first attempt because the oven didn't heat evenly. While they eventually got some edible forkfuls out of the deal, they had to persevere to get there.

After commiserating with Kathryn over her travails, I let her know that I could have helped with the pie crust as well. As I told her at the time, I take pie rather seriously. (For example, I know that my favorite pie crust recipe is on page 520 of Craig Claiborne's classic, New York Times Cookbook, one of my culinary bibles.) While I no longer make pie as often as I once did (my craving for sweets has diminished with age), after listening to Kathryn's lament I reflected on the years I spent in my 20s learning how to make a decent pie crust.

It turns out to be trickier than most people realize. You want the shortening (I prefer butter, though lard is terrific) to be cold; the water to be just enough for the dough to hold together (and not a tablespoon more); and the kneading to be minimal (as it develops the gluten—a good thing in bread, and a bad thing in pie crust and pancakes).

Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Bill Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, charming Billy?

This back and forth with Kathryn put me in mind of pie, and I had no trouble connecting the dots when it was my cook day yesterday and Mica delivered to the kitchen more than a gallon of fresh-picked sour cherries from our orchard. While it's work removing the stones (whence the phrase, it's the pits), I slowly got that accomplished in the interstices between other kitchen tasks, and was able to crank out two pies that popped out of the oven around 8:30 pm. While their late arrival meant that they featured more as a bedtime snack than the final course for dinner, they were no less delicious.

Even if though I'm happily married and am thus not interested in auditioning for the role of Billy Boy's partner, it's nice to know I could make the grade.
 • • •
While I'm on a culinary theme, I'll close with a libational vignette from yesterday morning. First let me set the stage.

I was over at Ma'ikwe's for a staff meeting during which we pulled the plug on the Ecovillage Education course at Dancing Rabbit this summer. We just didn't get enough enrollment to ensure that staff would make at least $10/hour. As we knew this in the works, yesterday's gathering was part wake (the official end of a dream for this summer) and part planning session (the official start of thinking ahead to offering the course again next year). The course is dead! Long live the course!

While cancelling was disappointing, there's a silver lining—the training won't kill my wife. Ma'ikwe was going to be the lead teacher for the course, yet she's battling the debilitating effects of chronic Lyme disease and her energy is sharply limited. We were both concerned about the possibility of Ma'ikwe pushing herself to do more than she could reasonably sustain—given how important this opportunity is to her—and then paying the piper afterwards with further damage to her constitution. It was a scary prospect and one I'm glad that we now won't face.

As people starting gathering for the meeting, Alyson Ewald was the first to show up, and I asked her if she wanted a cup of coffee. I was about to make a French press for myself and it was no extra trouble to make a cup for her at the same time. She gratefully accepted and after five minutes of steeping I inquired how she preferred to drink her java. She replied, "Sugar, no cream." 

I followed that up with a choice between sugar or honey, to which she responded, "I'll take sugar… unless you have maple syrup." Though not nearly as spectacular as my being able to produce mincemeat for Kathryn, it happened that we had an open jar of maple syrup on hand, allowing me to give Alyson exactly what she asked for—a simple thing that gives me considerable pleasure as a host. 

That said, there was still one hurdle to jump. The quart of syrup had a layer of mold growing on the top. (Maple syrup, unlike honey or sorghum, is a sweetener that cannot be cooked down to a low enough water content that it won't mold because it will crystallize and you'd never be able to get it out of the jar.) 

Fortunately, Alyson wasn't squeamish at all about my lightly skimming the mold with a spoon and then proceeding straight away to doctor up her cup of joe—knowing that a few stray spores would inevitably get into her cup. As a 40-something who grew up in Vermont, she's ingested plenty of maple syrup mold in her day, and it didn't daunt this homesteader a bit. I figured that for her it was the equivalent of New England penicillin. Or perhaps a more creative way to reach her pound-of-dirt quota that we're all expected to consume in our lifetime.

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