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Posts Tagged ‘pie’

Even in lean times, there are harvests to be found. I’m making sure my eyes are open to all the harvests I can possibly find; it’s the best way I know to keep my spirits up. Spring weather here in New Jersey has been uncommonly beautiful, with just enough rain yielding to sun to make plants happy.

Wild mint is going haywire, not that mint needs an excuse to be anything else. Every weekend I pick a handful of stems, plunk them in a glass of water, steep a handful of torn leaves in a Mason jar of filtered water in the refrigerator, and sip it all day.

Yesterday I found blackberry brambles woven into the tennis court fence by the lake and in the hedges surrounding a local church that dates back to 1903. I’ve walked past these places hundreds of times in my life, and am so grateful to find bounty, happy surprises, where I’d never seen them before.

Thought I’d need to relinquish picking strawberries at my favorite farm this year, not keen to court disaster by handling plants with Joe Q. Public’s fingers all over them, but went for it … and put them in a hot oven briefly afterward to destroy any sneaky C-19s.

And my beloved honeysuckle is blooming. I made a simple syrup and added flowers to it to infuse it, then made custard and stirred some in. My strawberry pie got a little sweeter, but we need a bit of extra sweetness now.

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This is been a milestone summer for me. I’ve had to learn to balance a new job and commute, which provides what I need to survive, with time in nature, which provides what I need to live.

I’m not going to say it’s been easy, late afternoon- and weekend-warrioring. But man, those moments have been sweet.

This summer I found wild blackberries growing along banks I’ve wandered since I was a kid, but never noticed. Made tea from flowers and leaves I dried, made lattice-topped pies from olive oil crusts instead of butter (never thought it would work, but guess what), and made sure to throw a pebble into the lake just to hear the PLUNK that always, always satisfies.

For the first time, I saved my molars and got every pit out of the wild Concord grapes I found, smacking my lips on their tartness. Swapped in my beach plums for cranberries in my favorite crisp, and they were fantastic. Sneaked onto footbridges in the woods and onto the lawn of my shamelessly absent neighbor, where in the dark of night I shamelessly picked enough fruit to make sour-cherry tarts.

I sank my tired feet into powdery sand and let the wind and 360-degree pink-and-grey sunsets wash the stress off me. There were 17 seagull tail feathers at the beach the other night, perfect quills for my next production of “1776.” Was serenaded by a Russian mulberry-lover, very much off-key (don’t ask. Actually, do. Great payoff.). Discovered that honeysuckle blooms in fits and starts all summer, just right for drying, and jammed May-fresh ones into a bottle of Laird’s to flavor the whiskey. Twice I sat and watched the yellow sunlight sparkles chase each other over the lake, and once I saw a fleet of catfish making kissy-faces at the surface of the water.

Walked the trail at Monmouth Battlefields, the Revolutionary War site, and marveled that Washington and the boys withstood 90-degree heat on that day in June while in wool uniforms (many couldn’t, and succumbed to heatstroke). Sat down to take a shot of a lone apple, looking like a dropped musket ball, and spent the next 15 minutes plucking vicious grassy needles off my bum. Freedom has its price.

Yesterday I really felt the sun and wind and crunch of sycamore leaves as I trudged along the banks of my lake. Today, driving home, I really loved the different greys of the clouds, layered like deckled pages in a book, and felt the coolness — new to the season but old, coming back.

So the wheel starts its descent, so the fall of the year has begun. Falling with it.

 

 

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Sat dumbfounded on my papered seat recently when my doctor told me I had to save meat for special occasions. I don’t mean red meat; I more or less already save that for the odd barbecue, and it’s not that big of a deal to me. I mean my mainstays—chicken and turkey.

But but but but they’re low fat, I said. They’re not as high in fat as red meat, but it’s still all saturated fat, she replied. I was in shock, although I did wake up to enjoy the little verse she performed for me next. Something about eating things that walk on all fours versus things that swim. Finger-plays for adults.

I love weirdo fish like sardines, mackerel, salmon, anchovies. But I never imagined they would so easily replace poultry for me, and moreover, that it would not bother me that much. That was the second shock.

Now I’m eating mackerel with horseradish mustard stirred in, scooped up with organic blue corn chips like a bleeding hipster, and for breakfast like a crazy person. I love it. I’m having fun picking out new condiments to try as well. The mustard is great; so’s chipotle hot sauce. Trader Joe’s Thai Green Curry Simmer was a disappointment, as it’s almost flavorless and is the same stricken color of the chairs at the DMV to boot. Looking forward to making my own hot sauces again, along with a new recipe for spicy lemon pickle, a recipe from India. It calls for fenugreek seeds and has to sit in the sun for a week. Clearly I’m in.

I’ve been saving poultry, and eggs as well, for every now and then. Gave in a couple of days ago and made myself a new recipe, below. Cut the sugar back by half (see once again and unremittingly: crazy person), cut the eggs down from five to three, and enjoyed one of the smoothest, velvety-est desserts I’ve ever had: old-fashioned lemon pie. Can’t have fish for breakfast every day, after all.

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This is a lemonade-out-of-lemons thing. Well, technically I got a pie out of it. And it concerns figs, not lemons. But saddle up and let’s ride this metaphor out.

A couple of weeks ago, after a hard and surprising first frost, I wandered out to the fig trees at the farm to do triage. Most customers don’t know the trees exist, which I’ll admit to you is a fairly greedy thrill, and those who do aren’t thinking about them in November; plus the girl behind the counter said anything I happened to find was mine for the taking. Take not lightly an ambitious woman with a berry basket.

The figs were small, but I was excited to discover many were soft. So! These could be a pie. These, after being sliced and hit with a drizzle of butter and honey, and sizzled around a little in a pan, could be a pie. A drizzle + a sizzle = redemption. I cleared out every last fig.

One of my biggest challenges* these days is looking at reality head-on and working with it as is. Wishing and wanting aside, and it’s bloody hard to do that, we’re left with the truth in its stocking feet. A big surprise is how often the final product is improved when we create without the benefit of inherent bells and whistles. A bigger surprise is how much pressure falls away when we’re left to retool on our own, and how sometimes we kind of impress ourselves.

They made a pretty nifty pie.

*or irks, depending on the day.

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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*Wüsthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

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Been a bugger of a week. I spent last Tuesday night and the following two days in what I call Election Stupor: On paper I was functional, but in true life was sleepwalking. Worse, I was oddly compelled to keep going, to keep accomplishing things, all while moving through what felt like psychic tapioca pudding.

At the election results my friends and I ranged from shocked to bereft to mad enough to spit ink. Collectively, we were Kubler-Ross’s Six Stages of Grief, whirling round and round like a roulette wheel. The silver ball could land anywhere, at any time. It still can. What a strange, strange situation.

And through it all I learned how much people want to be seen and heard. So many are starved of genuine connection. It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time, isn’t it, that technology can propel humanity’s voice almost anywhere on earth, but that so few people feel heard?

This past week my friends tried to see and hear each other, to comfort, vent, try to find the humor, howl at the moon, and mourn. It felt, for the most part, like we were trying to heal each other along with ourselves. We’re a big-hearted lot.

There are many ways to be fed. And while breakfast, lunch, and dinner fills the belly for a few hours, the human soul craves more, and finds it in connection.

Non-sequitor: I seem to be quite taken with making pie lately. This is bourbon-toasted-pecan pumpkin.

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Had a little fun with the topping. The points look like fangs. I dug it, and I dug INTO it.

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I’m guessing it couldn’t be helped. When the sour hearkens, a willing heart answers.

This is Halloween. Usually on this date I’m home handing out candy, or more likely crewing a show. This year I’m living in a high-rise and am not backstage, plus I’m taking a much-needed break, so I decided to do something I haven’t done since Halloween 1984: snoop around my old neighborhood after dark.

We’re in a liminal period right now. Halloween is the middle of an ancient three-day pagan holiday, Samhain, which marks the end of their summer and the beginning of winter. And times of transition make people nervous, no matter what year we’re living in. Everything is up in the air, and we don’t know how the chips will fall, if you’ll forgive two idioms in the same sentence. We’re in between planes now, smack in the middle of the cosmic doorway. Back in the day people believed evil spirits could come and go through that doorway during times of change.

These days, I’m feeling that liminal period hard core. New place, new work, a close relative with a questionable diagnosis, a high-voltage election looming (re: that last, I feel about it the way I felt about The English Patient: I want it over and done). Waiting to see what’s on the other side is really, really tough. I’m wondering if evil spirits—be they bad news, irrational colleagues, unintelligible insurance reps, what have you—are sniffing around my threshold. But I won’t know until I know. None of us will. And no matter how you slice it, ambiguity is a bitch.

Walking through my hometown tonight helped. It was a lot quieter than the Halloweens of yore, which was bizarre. What’s more, today’s residents have an odd preoccupation with sweeping leaves off sidewalks; we used to scuff right through them on Halloween. At the end of the night they’d be clinging to the hem of whatever costume I had on.

But another thought came to mind as I was semi-scuffing down those familiar sidewalks, and that is, this was and is a safe town, with lots of houses open for candy-hawking. We didn’t go in at the end of the night because we ran out of houses to visit, or because our moms were texting us to come home (for the pre-cell phone era at Halloween, thank the Lord, Jesus, St. Peter if he’s not too busy, and every last cherubim). We went in because our candy bags had gotten too heavy. There were still plenty of houses and plenty of candy if we wanted them. As much as we wanted, enough to fill our bags to the tops…and more still.

So maybe the trick to weathering liminal periods, when we’re (okay, me) panicking about What Might Happen, is to remember that at times of change anything’s possible. Like anything. Good stuff has just as much of a chance of dropping into our clam chowder as does bad. Anything is available to us.

I’m going to try to imagine a blue-sky future, one with dozens upon dozens of housewives at the ready with orange bowls of full-size Milky Ways. Who’s to say there isn’t plenty of plenty out there waiting for us?

Just to draw a line under that, here’s a pie.

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Improved upon a local classic this week, with apples poached in apple cider and toasted walnuts. I ate this like the Kraken coming off the Atkins diet. Just one slice left. Curses.

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Maybe 30 years ago I read Katherine Paterson’s brilliant Bridge To Terabithia*. There was a note at the end which said the illustrator drew the pictures while listening to the music of the Beatles. (To see one of Donna Diamond’s beautiful drawings from that book, click here.) Her work was so ephemeral and dreamy, and I was not surprised to learn of the particular musical influence. I’d bet you aren’t either.

In my Advanced Studio Art class in high school we always had the radio on, set to a local station, while we drew. My work was inevitably co-authored by Mister Mister, Heart, and Dream Academy. By college I’d graduated to Belinda Carlisle and MC Hammer.

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This is a Lady’s Speed Stick. Hammer would be proud.

Sometimes I listen to music while doing busy work like cutting and freezing produce. Once I wrote to Gourmet Magazine** and told them I spent the afternoon slicing organic strawberries while accompanied by Led Zeppelin. It was a solid choice, I thought. Gourmet agreed. They printed my letter.

But back to the vein of Donna Diamond, Bridge drawings, and the Beatles; and me, my drawings, and late ’80s power ballads: I think the music I’m listening to when I’m creating has a hand in the product. That includes cooking. This past few weeks I’ve needed some deep rest—soul-core rest. Aside from sleeping, that means comfort food; and in my case, making it.

First I went to my farm and bought some local, low-spray, ripe peaches. Then I sliced them and tucked them into a butter crust, latticed and sprinkled with demerara sugar. My co-author was The Carpenters. I felt like I was moving not through air but through Karen’s exquisite honey-colored contralto. That was a mellow-tasting pie, indeed (there it is above).

A couple of days ago I became oddly obsessed with a recipe I’ve had for years but have never made: blackberry brown-sugar cake. I took some liberties, since it was to be a breakfast or teatime cake for me, not a celebration cake for others. Omitted the buttercream and jam and half the sugar, swapped in some olive oil for part of the butter and whole-wheat pastry flour for some of the all-purpose. The recipe also called for ground walnuts and a little sugar at the base of the pan, but I didn’t have any walnuts, so I used hazelnuts instead. They were so heady and delicious that going forward I’ll never use walnuts. I topped the cake with tangy, organic plain yogurt and blackberries I’d just picked at the farm. The result was subtle and moody and surprising.

Nat ‘King’ Cole made this cake with me. You might not be able to tell by the photo, but you’d know for sure when you ate a slice.

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*The movie is rubbish.

**Requisite whimper that they’re gone. 😦

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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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Fruit collected in my secondhand bread-rising bowl.

Today I foraged in a graveyard under a canopy of old, old trees in full autumn fire.

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Marker nearby. Lambs and little angels usually guard children’s graves.

I picked wild persimmons from two little trees that my friend Lauren spotted last year when picnicking with her children.

Harvesting anything has always been a Zen thing for me, and it’s something I like to do alone. I love people—I’m no loner—but I always decline company when I’m picking. It’s a communion with the earth, and I can’t look and listen as well when I’m distracted by chatter.*

In this particular location, I’m utterly surrounded by company, but they’re the quiet sort.

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Persimmon tree in the foreground and graves in the back. American flags are abundant when persimmons are ripe; Veteran’s Day was last week.

I often think of ecology and climate change on excursions like this, on days when I get dirt, bits of twigs, and leaves in my boots. I think of how detached most of us are from the earth. (How can we see the connection between ourselves and the earth when we buy most of our food in fluorescent-lit stores hundreds or thousands of miles from the dirt where it grew? Why would we fight for that dirt when we never see it? We might as well fight for the planet Neptune.)

Years ago I read a quote from a new florist who said the flowers were teaching her what to do. When it’s just me and the trees, it’s very much the same. You get to know a plant when you visit it spring after summer after fall.

When it comes to wild persimmons, I’ve learned they’re smaller than the variety you see this time of year in stores, just about the size of a cherry tomato. They’re not ready to pick until they’re soft and black-burnished and somewhat shriveled. Once the leaves are gone and there’s nothing left on the tree but fruit, they’re usually ripe. But—if I tug on a fruit that’s not quite ripe, if it’s still too smooth and firm, it will resist. Not yet, it tells me. No. Wait.

Any stage actor worth the pantaloons he’s in will tell you there is no power in his performance until there’s an audience, that every breath, gesture, word he puts out there needs a human to tell it to. Acting is not just talking; not even a monologue is just talking. It is always a dialogue between the actor and the audience. It’s another communion. Each needs the other. Each feeds the other.**

This is how it is when I harvest: it’s a dialogue between the plant and me, far more immediate and powerful than if I were to choose that same plant from a store. It teaches me without a word, feeds me, and reinforces the connection between this human and the earth.

Harvesting in a graveyard might be the truest communion with the earth there is; it’s the full life cycle in 360-vision. We pick the food from the earth, one day we will be put in the earth, more food grows and is picked, and the cycle continues.

This is my second and last year harvesting at this beautiful spot, though; the church chaplain gave me permission to pick, but gives me the stink-eye when I do. I will miss these trees, but picking that way mars the experience. She doesn’t know that I thank the trees (I’m a goof, but I really do), nor that I always say hello to the folks that surround them (which I’d do anyway, even if I hadn’t just reread Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I had). She doesn’t know that this is sacred to me. I conveyed my enthusiasm, but it didn’t help.

I’ll keep looking until I find more persimmon trees. And in the meantime, I’m making a pie.

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*I’ll give you one exception: my elderly neighbor brought me along on maybe his 70th year foraging for beach plums, and my first year. He was the pensive type, a hunter, and he went off to one thicket and I went off to another. He got it. The communion thing.

Oh…and this is probably why I never went in for religion. Nothing against it for others, but for me, communion with a great Something is too important to be cluttered up with rules, doctrine, pageantry, and a heap of other people reciting in unison. I need quiet.

**When you see a performance that moves you, please applaud, gasp, laugh, sigh, whatever. For 20 years I’ve stood backstage with anxious actors, and you have no idea how much that feeds them. They thrive on your reactions—honest.

 

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