Thursday, August 25, 2011

While the Husbands Away the Wife Will Play

It's not what you think. I haven't been out drinking at the Pine Cone with the locals until 2am. While Tony has been on a much needed 2-day moto ride, I've been staying up until one in the morning widening my culinary horizons, or facing my fears if you like. You see, for many years I've had a terrible fear of making pie crust. I know many a woman intimidated by the thought of making their own pie dough from scratch, but I think my insecurity stems from way back when I was newly married and learning how to cook, long before my sweet sister gave me The Joy of Cooking.

It was Thanksgiving season and my office was having a potluck - I was to make the pumpkin pie.  I grew up eating the very best pumpkin pie and watched my mom make her crust and filling with confident ease. Watch mind you, which is not the same as doing. Now I was 25 years old and I'd never even attempted pie crust. So, after I obtained my mom's pumpkin pie recipe I got to work with borrowed confidence. Of course the dough kept falling apart, therefore I simply added more water and patted it in place, but when I rolled it out the crust stuck to the counter, so I added more flour then rolled it out again and again until it was a perfect 9" round. As many of you know, all this water and flour and manhandling merely made the crust as hard as cement, which I discovered at the potluck. When I ate my first bite I nearly cracked a tooth. Plus, the filling was a bit runny. Sigh. It was not my finest culinary moment. To their credit my bosses and colleagues never complained, but I noticed many of them left uneaten pie on their plates. All except Dr. Watanabe, who sweetly ate two pieces when he saw my face as I tossed the plates away. "No, Rachel it's very good." He said, smiling in that kind way that always made me feel special.

Ever since that one failed attempt and all these years I have been skirting around making pie crusts, sneakily purchasing them in the freezer section at the local supermarket and filling them with my own concoctions. When I noticed many store bought pie crusts were made with the dreaded partially-hydrogenated oil, something Tony and I have vowed to cut from our diets, I switched to phyllo dough, but it can't compare to a tender, crunchy, buttery pie crust.

In truth, it was Julia Child who changed my opinion of making pie crust. I'm fortunate to have grown up watching J.C. on TV - her curly red bob, happy eyes and big teeth - that voice, and I remember feeling sad when she passed away in 2004 at 91. But I'd honestly never fully realized how important she was or how COOL she was, until I saw the film Julie and Julia. Something about that movie brought back fond childhood memories and filled me with the desire to make Sole Dore, much to my husband's delight, Gruyere cheese puffs for my fellow UCB workers, and I mastered french chocolate mouse (made with Scharffen Berger chocolate, of course) as well as french crepes.

Two years ago, my husband gave me Julia Child's cookbook - Mastering the Art of French Cooking for my 39th birthday, but it's not until this past Spring, when I started volunteering my time at the farmer's market, that I really began using her recipes: Pate Sablee (Sugar Crust) for my Lemony Pots of Gold, Pate Brisee (Pie Crust) for my Apple Pie and Pate Brise Sucree (Sweet Short Paste) for my English Tea Cookies. It was her technique for blending the butter and flour with my fingers, NOT my $40 pastry blending tool from Williams-Sonoma, that enlightened me. This hands-on approach along with the fraisage - or final blending of the butter and flour at the end - has made my last seven pie crust experiences a complete JOY. After letting the dough chill overnight and then allowing it to sit at room temperature for a bit, I pound it with my rolling pin then roll- spin, roll-spin (which eliminates sticking), then I gently fold and lay it into the lovely blue Le Creuset pie dish Mom Paoli gifted me. Et voila!

I am so grateful to Julia for her advice: "A pastry blender may be used if you wish, but a necessary part of learning how to cook is to get the feel of the dough in your fingers. Il faut mettre la main a la pate!" Thanks to J.C. I swiftly make pie crusts with genuine confidence and ease, leaving time to do other things...