Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Confessions of an Imperfect Pie-Maker

Until very recently, the closest I had ever come to making a pie was watching my mother make one while I drank a glass of wine. Pies were simply too complicated and time-consuming for my patience and schedule, and besides, couldn't one buy a perfectly good pie at the Rainbow Foods bakery?

I have since ventured into the world of pies, and the aversion of "complicated" has transformed into "worthy challenge." Making pies, like so many other baked goods, is an art and a science. One misstep leads to another, which leads to a ball of dough in the garbage and a filling down the disposal. But once I decided to give pies a try, I met them head-on, wrestling the challenges to the ground.

My mother, an accomplished pie-maker, taught me how to make a crust. Her crusts are picturesque and perfectly flaky, so naturally she made it look very easy. Unfortunately, the sly geometry involved with trying to get a pie crust to flatten in a perfect circle, coupled with the precise moisture content, has made for evenings of cursing while sweeping flour off the floor and out of my hair.

Tonight, I attempted two pies: a banana cream and a strawberry cream. Apprehensive about the crust, due to a previous debacle involving a football-shaped crust and way too much flour, I took it very slowly. What emerged from this patience were two absolutely flawless, round crusts. I could not quite believe my luck, and actually stared at them for a few minutes with disbelieving pride.

The banana cream filling was one I had made before, with some help from Chef Matt, but buoyed by my perfect crusts, I was sure I could do it alone. Turns out, tempering egg yolks with hot liquid is a delicate business, which left my lovely vanilla pudding full of scrambled eggs. I decided that people would, in fact, notice scrambled eggs in their pie, so I first tried to sieve the eggs out before furiously throwing the whole mixture away. Not wanting to need Matt to bail me out, I tried again, and managed to avoid breakfast food in my dessert.

The strawberry cream was much easier, although I did examine the recipe for a minute, stumped, as I determined the best way to mash fresh strawberries. When the potato masher and potato ricer did not do the trick, I gave up and used my hands.

What I love most about baking pies is the overwhelming satisfaction that comes with conquering a difficult task. Crusts and fillings are frustrating undertakings for infrequent bakers like myself, but I have found that a hole left by talent can be filled adequately by persistence and precision. When I manage to make a beautiful lattice-top cherry pie, or even a banana cream with no scrambled eggs, I feel pride in something that is not one of my gifts. And honestly, that might be a greater sort of pride than something that comes naturally.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Lonely Sunday Strikes

The evil gnome of Kitchen Widow life struck this weekend.

It was a beautiful Sunday, warm and humid and practically begging for much outdoor play, when the dastardly villain crept up on me before I could light-saber it to the ground, as I usually do, and attacked. My defenses were down as I struggled to wrangle the children and fight off third-trimester exhaustion, so I sank easily into its clutches: Loneliness had gotten me.

It was one element of Kitchen Widow life that surprised me in its ferocity, the first time Loneliness struck. I am very capable of being alone, in general. I lived alone, from the time I graduated college to the time we got married, and I loved the freedom and independence aloneness afforded. But I believe there is a difference in the aloneness of single life and the aloneness of missing your spouse.

These days, Loneliness does not win very often. I am too frantic, too caught up in the busyness of career/mommyhood/home ownership/married life to pay Loneliness much heed. It also does me no good to dwell on my lonely hours, and it certainly does nothing for Chef Matt except produce guilt. But this Sunday, I think I was caught up in imagining a life where weekends belonged to us and not the restaurant, where we could lollygag and linger to our hearts' content, where weekend camping trips were a possibility, where we could socialize during normal hours instead of on inconvenient Monday nights.

The world is certainly not set up for non-bankers' hours. But I can find solidarity in so many others who exist outside of 9-to-5: nurses, police officers, retail clerks, journalists, bus drivers, to name a few. Weekends do not always exist for them, or their spouses, and I am sure that many of them see life as we do: hours spent together are rare and precious and never taken for granted.

I was able to vanquish Loneliness after a while, as the day rolled into evening and meals were made and children were entertained. Although I always feel bad when I let it bring me down, I suppose I should feel a little grateful for Loneliness. Its appearance reminds me that my husband's presence is important to me, and to the kids, and just as the existence of evil illuminates the good, the existence of Loneliness illuminates the Companionship. The elusive weekend will eventually come to us, but for now, I will take our Monday nights.

My defenses are operational, Loneliness. I am ready when you strike again.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Frankly My Dear, I Would Like Another Glass of Sweet Tea

In one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs, there is a line that I have always related to: "When God made me born a Yankee, he was teasin'." Although I have not spent a lot of time in the South, I am endlessly fascinated by the complex history and culture of the world below the Mason-Dixon Line, and have often felt that my soul belongs in a warm, coastal place, illuminated by the blossoms of magnolias and rocking chairs on breezeways.

Due to the fortuitous intersection of the anniversary of the Civil War (or, depending on who you ask, the War Between the States) and a national history conference that my department was sending someone to attend, I just spent several days in Charleston, South Carolina, a city I have been desperate to visit.

Like a genteel Southern lady should, Charleston seemed to welcome me in like an old friend, and within hours, I was thoroughly entranced by her rows of historic homes, bright vegetation, pervasive connection to 300 years of history, and the lilting accents of the natives. Although my non-history-nerd relations might laugh, there were moments when I closed my eyes and could almost sense the wide-brimmed hat and sweeping skirts, or at different moments, hear the calamity of war and horrific sounds of a slave market.

Amidst moments of imagination, there was a reality of Southern life that came alive for me in the form of the local cuisine. I am not one to turn down any type of local fare, but the food in Charleston elicited a reaction of familiarity and instant infatuation that I have rarely experienced. The cuisine is a mixture of European, African and Caribbean that has marinated for three centuries and emerged as intensely flavorful and comforting, a source of great local pride.

The first night, I ate fried green tomatoes, followed by catfish with cheesy grit cakes and okra, quite possibly the most Southern meal I could have imagined. The grits were nothing like the runny, grainy mess I had imagined; they were creamy and buttery and seemed to belong to the okra, as if they were part of the same plant. The second night, I had she-crab soup (quite a difference between he and she crabs, according to the locals), with crab cakes, Carolina red rice and collard greens. The greens, like the grits, were a food that raised suspicion, but I discovered in the hot, wilted greens an unexpectedly rich flavor of vinegar, hamhocks and garlic. The final night, I gave in and ordered fried chicken, which was so beautifully crunchy that I almost forgot that it was absolutely unhealthy.

My constant companion, throughout this culinary adventure, was a glass of sweet tea. For Midwesterners, iced tea is served unsweetened, unless you add a packet of Sweet and Low or Splenda yourself. But in the South, sweet tea is brewed sweet, and the result is perfect companion to the spicy, buttery, or peppery meal on your plate. I think I drank five or six glasses each day, reveling in the knowledge that no matter where we were in Charleston, the sweet tea would be waiting for me.

Although the Yankee in me to too strong to suppress at this point, I will always feel an overwhelming desire to be intimate with the South. Maybe it is the history, or maybe it is the natural elements, maybe it is the fact that I would wear a hoop skirt to clean my house and stroll down Summit Avenue, if such behavior was not viewed as completely weird. Or maybe it is the allure of how all of those elements meld so seamlessly in something as simple as a bed of grits or a glass of sweet tea.