Monday, May 31, 2010

American as....

Ah, three-day weekends. There is something so naughty and refreshing about having a Monday all to yourself; about eating breakfast in casual nibbles and bites from the kitchen over the course of an hours-long morning. And of course it's always nice to spend Sunday afternoon cooking out and sprawled in the sunshine, but it's so much sweeter when it then tumbles into a lazy Monday, too.

For me the three-day weekend is perhaps less exciting than it is for most, given my gainful unemployment and the fact that I've been pretty much coasting on a month-long weekend since the beginning of May. So, relatively speaking, Memorial Day Weekend hasn't been that special, even if in absolute terms it's been quite special indeed. There is a certain urban energy that flows more magnanimously, more freely and happily, when everyone (not just me) gets to enjoy a free Monday.

This year, since the mere occurrence of a three-day weekend seemed less special than it has in years past, I decided to celebrate Memorial Day a little bit more than I usually do. When I decide to celebrate something, it usually involves baking, and this was no exception. Instead of the usual cookies, brownies, or chocolate bundt cake, though, I was inspired, on this particular three-day weekend, to make something unmistakably American: pie.

To be clear, I am not a pie person. In fact, I've always been puzzled by pie: why would anyone eat pie when they could have cookies, or a thick wedge of moist cake, or even a scoop or three of good ice cream? And why bother making a crumbly, sloppy pie when you could instead turn out a dainty tart with a pate sucre? I realize that many people are pie people; that their mothers and grandmothers spent years perfecting their flaky crusts, that Thanksgiving was really just a glorified pie-baking marathon, that a simple slice of homey pie was really a piece of comfort flanked by double-crust.

But not for me. My family isn't a pie family. The only pie we ever had was a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, which, given that the crust came from the freezer and the filling recipe came from the label on the can, didn't really inspire the emotional attachment that I imagine homemade pies might inspire for others. Which isn't to say that other foods we ate didn't inspire that attachment, but pie just wasn't one of those foods.

Which is probably why I'd never really been inspired to bake a pie before this weekend. To me, pie seemed to embody the unfortunate dichotomy of being incredibly fussy, what with the chilling and rolling of the dough, that only in the hands of the most skilled bakers would turn out acceptably (or so I believed based on everything I've read about pie-making), and also being decidedly homey - not particularly pretty on the plate and not particularly interesting in its combinations of flavors. In other words, a pain in the ass to make, and nothing special to taste.

I guess I'm like the Scrooge of pies. It shouldn't come as a shock that I've never been partial to the all-American fare that has recently been popularized as "comfort food," and I considered pie to be the sweet equivalent of macaroni and cheese or fried chicken: Sure, I'd love to read a good essay about it, but keep it out of my kitchen, please.

I can't say exactly what it was that created the shift in my sensibilities that resulted in me rolling out a buttery-rich crust on my kitchen table yesterday afternoon. But it certainly had to do with an utterly charming book I just read on the history of cooks and meals in the United States. Now that I've rediscovered daylight freedom, I've also rediscovered this cool thing that I had all but forgotten about called "reading books." Instead of oscillating between tabs on your web browser, alternating between "work" and sneaking peaks at blogs and other internet ephemera, you actually sit down (preferably outside, in the sunshine, on a blanket) with a book and then you devote a whole hour, maybe more or less, depending on how hungry you are or when you have to go to yoga class, to reading it. It's quite lovely.

Anyway, I read a book titled From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, by Barbara Haber, that is a combination of women's history and American culinary history, and covers topics as diverse as the Puritanical food influences of Sylvester Graham and the first post-Slavery black cooks of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I'll spare you the full book report, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend it to anyone who gets a kick out of historical gastronomic voyeurism or reading recipes for gelatinous tomato soup-and-mayonnaise salads.

And wouldn't you know that among the historical recipes included in the book was a recipe for Liberation Cherry Pie, a similar version of which was handed out to American soldiers when they were liberated from internment camps in the Phillipines at the end of WWII. Since I was so smitten with the book, and since I had a patriotic three-day weekend that called for a bit of celebration, it seemed like the perfect occasion to try out a Liberation Cherry Pie. If for some reason it didn't pass muster on taste, well, at least it fit the holiday it was meant to celebrate.

As per the author's suggestion, I used two jars of Trader Joe's Morello cherries in the filling, which also included a bit of thickener (I used flour and cornstarch), sugar, and a dash of cinnamon. All-American simplicity at its best. I am very happy to report that the filling, though requisitely gooey and juicy, thickened properly and didn't create a runny mess on the plate when served. Since my more eclectic kitchen personality isn't quite ready to roll over in the face of all-Americanism, the pie crust that I made included whole wheat pastry flour (instead of white flour), and lots of butter (100% butter instead of half shortening, half butter).

The slight roughness of the whole wheat pastry flour made the dough a bit trickier to work with than it would have been if it had been made with white flour, and the all-butter factor made a quick hand pretty essential when it came to rolling the bottom crust and creating the top-crust lattice (I'll admit that this makes for an extremely attractive finished product). But, all in all, my first go at a real pie crust went pretty well, and I think the results may even have been "flaky." I suppose reading about pastry as much as I have can do in a pinch when you don't have generations of passed-down pie wisdom upon which to rely.

And the verdict on taste? Well, the pie disappeared in a flash at our Sunday barbecue, and I have to say that I was quite pleasantly surprised by its flavor and texture. It certainly did have that homey look and taste - all crumbly and sticky and nearly impossible to cut into picture-perfect slices - but it was also richly buttery and just tart enough from the cherries, and had a fruity, wholesome quality that might explain why "comfort food" seems to have some staying power.

Now that I'm more experienced (though still a novice) in the art of pie, I think that the beauty of pie lies in its homeliness. In one bite you get a sweet mouthful of fruit that bursts and squirts as you chew, and in the next you get the depth of burnished crust, complemented by an oven-hardened slick of cherry syrup. There are mouthfuls of somewhat soggy crust redeemed in the next by a crisp-crackly specimen of top lattice, and just as you finish tasting that spectrum of tastes and textures, you realize you've practically licked your plate clean.

In case you're curious, no, I don't think I've been fully converted to a pie person. But now I at least feel that I understand the institution of pie, and am happy to have made it in the name of celebration. And who knows? Perhaps my next well-deserved three-day weekend (July 4? Labor Day?) might just call for a little more all-American, crusty goodness.

The recipe for Liberation Cherry Pie can be found on p. 149 of From Hardtack to Homefries, by Barbara Haber. If you're dying to try it and don't have the book, any simple cherry pie recipe will likely do - Haber's recipe is about as simple as they get. I do, however, recommend using the Trader Joe's jars of Morello cherries (2 jars for a 9-in pie), which are sour and delicious and much better than what you'll find in a can.


Mrs. M said...

I actually love pie whether blueberry, raspberry, strawberry-rhubarb or the humblest apple. I just prefer someone more skilled to make the pie for me.

oneordinaryday said...

I am a huge pie-lover, though I don't often bake them. I really need to make pie more often. Your photo has me swooning!

Christina said...

Really great job on the crust, it looks beautiful! I make pie every year for the 4th of July, something with berries because it sounds like summer!