27 August 2007

A Pie to be Proud of

So this is the pie, take two.

It turned out well. That is to say, better than the first attempt. The custard was firm, and each individual slice held its shape. If Grandma Peach's Lemon Meringue Pie means nothing to you, reader, skip down and read the past two posts first.

For those of you who know of Peach's Pie (I am hopeful that readers exist), you know why this was special. And how fitting that it came as the cap to a truly special evening.

Last night we hosted a Sunday Supper in honor of our home's 100th birthday. We thought there was no better way to toast our house than by filling it with friends -- our Northwest family -- and eating a fabulous meal. The night was nothing less.

Four couples, four kiddos, a couple of bottles of wine and, the food.

We had a 5 pound hen I bought from Millennium Farms. I spatchcocked the bird, let him soak all day in a brine of water, brown sugar, whiskey, molasses, crushed red pepper and black pepper corns, and, of course, lots of salt. Then, we charcoaled the guy on our new, old-school Webber.

Alongside the bird was a wild salmon fillet grilled in a foil packet with a little salt, lemon zest, oil and fresh herbs. I also made skins-on mashed potatoes with loads of butter, salt and cream. Then some oven-dried tomatoes served with fresh, blanched green beans, olive oil and sesoning. And a few ears of grilled corn and bread.

Then one added touch that, in my mind at least, elevated the meal to a true Sunday Supper -- gravy.

From the spatchcocked bird, I reserved the neck and backbone. I boiled this down in some heavily salted water, and after reducing for several hours, I discarded the bones, and used the liquid for the gravy base. (For the kitchen techies, this was a day of wonderment in the world of corn starch with the custard, meringue and gravy!)

The result of a day's worth of work in the kitchen was phenomenal. Not just the food, but the conversation, the kids, the love. The evening wasn't about verbose toasts or even reflection. It just was. A meal time, a dinner hour, a family thing. The casualness and routine of the night explains the lack of photos. It was just like I remember dinners at Mom and Pop's, Saturday night fish fries at the lake and the informal meals that turn into block parties at the Princes'.

The kids were the first to scatter from the table. Then slowly, the gals cleared plates, and the boys moved to the living room for a little all-male chatter. We washed dishes and talked, until the kitchen was clean. Then, Dina grabbed dessert plates and forks, and we sliced the pie.

The conversation had drifted outside to the front porch, where little ones were preoccupied with the swing and Wiley The Dog. We sat outside on the late-summer evening, catching up, sharing stories, laughing, and, most importantly, enjoying the company.

Sunday Supper was the perfect celebration for our house, our home. And eating pie on the porch may someday become a memory, or perhaps a tradition, for my family.

Peach, I think, would be proud.

25 August 2007

The Problems with Pie

So, I've been purposefully avoiding this post.

The last one was written as my pie was chilling. I was feeling good about it, then.

Well, it turns out, it was merely OK. The meringue was great. I could have beaten the egg whites just a bit stiffer, and I probably loaded too much atop the pie, but overall, it held up, tasted great and had wonderful texture. The custard on the other hand was not so good.

I'm probably selling it a little short. The flavor was wonderful; it was merely a problem with the consistency of the custard. It didn't hold. It was too runny. There was no way to get a perfect wedge of pie. And although it is no surprise, it certainly didn't look like the beautiful pillowy pie in the picture of the cookbook.

So, since it wasn't a flavor issue, I'm thinking that with some tweaking of technique that I can get it down. And by tweaking, I mostly mean practice on my part. I'm going to believe that the recipe is good, and my practice is rusty.

That said, we still enjoyed the pie. Seth was probably irritated how I was critiquing every bite. But, alas, he knows me well, and likely anticipated this, or was nonetheless surprised by my analysis of the creamy yellow custard.

To vindicate myself, I have to share a happy accident. These happen in kitchens all the time. Christiane once told me some great story about a kitchen accident that turned into a wildly popular item. I can't remember the story, but the theme rings clear. It's like when Christiane made her great cheesecake recipe in mini-muffin molds. They tasted great, but for some reason, the centers of the cakes depressed after cooling. The look was less than attractive, so we fixed them by piping a whipped strawberry cream cheese frosting on top. They turned out beautifully and tasted great.

We ended up making the recipe again, the next time, counting on the depression to hold the yummy frosting. A fabulous mistake turned great!

Well, on a recent weeknight I arrived at home tired from work. Knowing we'd probably eat out the next night, I decided to cook dinner. I stepped in the back yard with Wiley and found inspiration in the garden. With a yellow squash and tomatoes, I set out to make a pasta sauce.

I anticipated a thin cream sauce with tomatoes and squash over pasta. I sauted onions and garlic, then added squash and tomatoes. As I was moving along, I decided to add some cream and puree the mixture once it was cooked down. The puree was much thicker than I anticipated, so I attempted to thin it a bit with my pasta water. As I left it bubbling on the stovetop while my pasta finished cooking, I took a taste.

At first I was wildly disappointed. It was a texture thing, just not at all what I expected, and it was a little bland. I added some seasoning and some fresh grated parm. Once the pasta was cooked, I added it into the sauce pan and stirred. The sauce, thick from the pureed squash, clung to the pasta quite well.

The result looked very much like a mac' 'n' cheese. The orange-tinted sauce (achieved by the yellow squash and red tomatoes) coated the corkscrew pasta (Roa's brand I buy at Safeway. Noting the brand and type of pasta is important because it really impacts the way pasta interacts with sauce.). I topped with a little more grated parm and some toasted pine nuts.

I decided to call the dish "Faux Cheese." It did, of course, have some cheese in it, but it turned out to be a way healthier version of homey mac' 'n' cheese. And I'm not even talking about fat content. I just mean healthier in the sense of a more well-rounded meal. It had some dairy, but it also had some great veggies. I even topped it with spinach leaf stems, chopped to resemble green onions. (When I buy spinach -- not the baby bagged kind, the real deal -- I rinse the stems, pat them dry and freeze them. You can easily pull them out of the freezer individually, slice them just like a green onion and add them to dishes for a little color and nutrition!)

So, looking back, it's probably good that I waited this long to blog about the pie. I have perspective. Instead of being totally disappointed about how it turned out, I am able to remember that seldom is there perfection in the kitchen. However, sometimes the accidents turn into unexpected surprises. That wasn't the case with the pie, nor a recent batch of oatmeal cookies in which the butter melted too quickly in the oven, causing flat, thin cookies, but, hey, the pasta was worth remembering.

To love to cook, to love the vibe in the kitchen -- the way the oven warms a cold winter morning or the open window whips the stove's flame on a breezy summer evening -- is why my kitchen is a haven in my home. And why, to cook is nourishment for my soul, not just my stomach.

05 August 2007

Lemon Meringue Pie

This entry could be one of many that falls under Peach. As in my Grandma Peach.

She was actually my great grandmother. My mother's mother's mother. I am a lucky woman in that I have the pleasure of knowing all four of my great grandmothers. I have lovely, and, yes, quirky, memories of them all. It should come as no surprise that I have the most of Grandma Peach.

For starters, Peach was the youngest of my great grandmothers, and she outlived the others, passing away two years ago at the age of 90. She also lived on the black angus ranch she and my Great-Grandfather Ira Wilson started in Seminole, Okla. It was family tradition that at least once each summer all of my mother's side of the family would gather at Peach's house. As kids, this was a real treat.

A hot, sunny afternoon at Grandma Peach's was a childhood dream. After a few hours climbling and crawling over and atop of stacks of dry, scratchy hay bales, the kids would climb into the back of Uncle Butch's rusty Chevy truck bed. We'd hurry for seats on the wheel wells and make sure not to step on the pile of rusted, cracking fishing poles. He'd ramble along, giving us a ride, point out cows, telling stories about them once we got close enough to identify their tag number. Eventually we'd wind our way to the top of a berm giving way to a red-tinted muddy pond where we'd smash stink bait around rusty hooks and drop them in the water. It wouldn't take long before the top white round of a bobber would drop below the surface. Even with the slow, old reels, the odds were great that even the littlest of kids would pull out a decent-sized catfish. We always threw them back, knowing that next summer they'd be even bigger.

After hours of play, we'd always wind up back in Grandma Peach's kitchen. When I was very young, Peach still cooked. She would often make her chicken and noodles, boiled corn on the cob and iced tea. But the thing in the kitchen that drew the kids were the pies. In the back of her kitchen, a china hutch and buffet lined the wall. The built-in piece was painted pale brown with a mirrored back and inexpensive flecked-laminate counter top.

And, without fail, there were always at least two pies -- a chocolate meringue and a lemon meringue. I was always drawn to the lemon pie, a vivid yellow lemony custard topped with beautiful, pillowy meringue. I remember them always having small beads of moisture on top, something I'm sure only sticks in my head because Grandma Peach would always mention the weeping pies, as if the pies were ruined.

Alas, they were not. I still remember the pies. Not just the smooth lemon custard, but the exact spot on the buffet where they sat. At some point I probably even knew the number of steps from the front door, past the washer, the dryer, the kitchen table and the main hall to the pies. I also remember that her lemon meringue pie was the gold standard in my mind. It was what the pie was supposed to taste like. It was golden; it was summer; it was delicious.

Today I got a hankering to make a lemon meringue pie. I don't have her recipe, but that didn't matter so much. The proportions would have been nice to know, but no words would even convey years of technique and talent.

I settled on a recipe from "Cookwise" by Shirley Corriher. It gave a great base of why each step was necessary, not quite the same as a teacher in the kitchen, but it would do.

It took me nearly two hours. It was complicated. Slowly cooking the custard by first tempering egg yolks and then whisking the entire mixture together. Working with corn starch to achieve the nice balance of smooth yet thick. Beating the egg white mixture into stiff peaks.

Once the pie was in the oven, I started the clean up. I thought back about how this really wasn't a high-pressure pie. It wasn't destined for a dinner party or a picnic, or even anyone at all, really. And yet, for some reason, I wanted it to work. I wanted the peaks to come out beautifully and the pie to slice into firm yet delicate pieces.

All of this, just for a memory. A memory of Grandma Peach's Lemon Meringue Pie. A memory of those great childhood summers spent catfishing, eating salted watermelon slices behind the house and gathering around the table in Grandma Peach's kitchen.

Perhaps I'll adopt this recipe as my own. I asked my mom about the recipe, and she said she might be able to find it, although she never remembers her grandmother referencing a recipe. Either way, it's important that I continue to bake it.

My children will never know their Grandma Peach, and they won't spend summer afternoons on her cattle ranch. But the pie, like a few other dishes of hers I make, can be a concrete connection, not so much to pass along the precision of my memories but to give an opportunity for my family's future generations to create their own.