Monday, January 13, 2014

A Philosphy of Food--In One Serving

Shaker Lemon Pie
via Cmadler / Wikipedia 

Over the last month or so, I've put my energy towards finally making a consistent, decent pie crust. Turns out, it's not all that difficult. It's not yet the perfect pie crust, but it is consistent and enjoyable.
I practiced making pastry by making a Shaker lemon pie (well, two at a time, actually). And as I mixed dough and prepped the filling, I realized that this is a pie that sums up my philosophy of food in one crazy intense dish.
I've made this pie for over twenty years, off and on. I think I first read the recipe in Esquire magazine (although I could be completely mistaken--it has been a lot of years, after all). Most of the time I cheated and bought premade pie crusts, as I regularly made the most inedible crusts on the planet. I've always cooked, but baking has been one of the forgotten skills around me. After getting married, I discovered that my Significant Other (the writer Paula Johanson) loved to bake cookies and cakes and the like, making my efforts at best redundant. I still occasionally made an Impossible Pie from a recipe out of the United Church Ladies Auxiliary cookbook produced by our local church. That's a pie where you mix all the ingredients in one bowl, and as it bakes it separates into shell, filling, and topping as if by magic. It kinda worked when I did it, and as it had coconut and sugar, was always quite snackable, but not what you'd call serious baking. And as Paula got into breads and rolls, I just backed away from baking and left the territory to her.
But while there was a plethora of baking powder biscuits, breads, and cakes, pie was one of those things that didn't get made very often. Until I found the recipe in Esquire.
The filling is simple: I've quoted it from memory many times.
    1. 2 large lemons (with the ends cut off and the pith and seeds removed)
    2. 2 cups 9500 ml) of sugar
    3. 4 eggs
Yeah, that's it. Three ingredients. As it was explained originally, the lemons are sliced so thin that it takes all of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland  playing to get through the task. Lemons are then macerated in the sugar, and, some hours later, the beaten eggs are stirred in. Into a pie shell, a lattice or full top, and into the oven.

I've picked up bits and pieces of pastry lore over the years, so a year back while I was browsing in a thrift store, I came across my mother's rolling pin. Fairly heavy clear glass, hollow, with a plastic screw-on cap on one end.
much like this, only with a plastic cap
via, where you can get one 

What I'd been reading about pastry-making I'd been applying to my memories of my mother making pie, and her letting me roll out the dough and try to transfer it to a dish. But I knew that sometimes she had filled this with ice and water when rolling out dough. When I went back with the intention of making pastry, all the warnings about using cold tools started to make sense. It's the same reason you can use a marble rolling pin; it's cold. And I did something my mother never did--I bought a pastry cutter.
Pastry cutter
via Portia's Portions  

I also used the recipe for pastry dough off the bottom of a box of Tenderflake® lard. Again, pretty simple list of ingredients:
    • 6  cups / 1.5L cake and pastry flour
    • OR 5½ cups /1.4L all purpose flour
    • 2 tsp. / 10 ml. salt
    • 1 lb. / 454 grams lard
    • 1 tbsp. / 15 ml vinegar
    • 1 lightly beaten egg
    • some cold water
And that's my philosophy of cooking in a nutshell (or a simple pie): Keep it simple. Keep it to ingredients my grandmother would recognize. Concentrate on flavour without using too many ingredients. Take your time and keep it simple.
The filling only has three ingredients. Admittedly, I don't do the "slice and macerate" thing anymore--instead I dump it all in a blender and chop it up ultrafine by comparison. I find it makes a better filling. But three ingredients. It's all about the flavour.
When I roast a duck, I follow a very simple recipe from Julia Child; cut the breast skin to release the fat, sprinkle with salt, and roast it long and slow. Chicken? Same thing. Stuff with onion, salt, roast long and slow. It's all about the flavour of the food. Better flavour? Improve your ingredients. Free range chicken. Muscovy vs. Peking duck. Cruelty-free pork. Grass-fed beef. Fresh local veg. Get top quality ingredients and concentrate on maximizing their flavour with your preparation. If you get the basics right and the foundations firm, you never need worry about the quality of your cooking.

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