Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pie Redux

          Can we talk about pie? Again?
          Of course we can! Pie is the perfect conversation topic: it is delicious, widely varied, and inspiring of great partisanship (fruit or cream? Pumpkin or sweet potato? Lemon meringue or coconut cream?) and amusing stories of failure.
          I'm thinking about pie again* because I just read this in the editor's note in the November 2011 Cooking Light: "Lord, there is a heap of tragic pie in America—sad pie, lonely pie, befuddled pie. I've had pie so bad I think the pie laws were broken."
          Aside from the fact that this quote sounds like the beginning of a really great country-and-western song, and that "Tragic Pie" would be a great name for a grunge band, I heard my spiritual calling in those words.
          Yes, my friends, I can help you de-sadden, de-lonelify, de-fuddle—in short, de-tragic your pie.
          Because I have the Pie Laws.
          Easier to follow than the Ten Commandments—also shorter—the pie laws can help you—yes you! right there in front, in the yellow shirt with annoyingly large grey stripes—de-tragic your pies and improve your life!

          Herewith Nancy's Pie Laws for De-tragicking Pie:
               1. Ice water. Not cold water—ice water.
               2. Use enough ice water (one-quarter cup for one cup of flour; one-half cup for two cups).
               3. Cold butter. If you use lard (and why would you?), I can't help you. Shortening, ditto.
               4. A pastry cutter.
               5. Once it's been made, keep the dough chilled.

          See, short and sweet.
          And now the commentary: 1. Put ice cubes in your water and swirl them around to get the water properly chilled, then measure it. I'm serious as death about this. In order for the crust to be flaky, the butter has to stay as cold as possible. Use tepid tap water and suffer Pie Fail.
          2. More on this below. Use less than these amounts and suffer Pie Fail.
          3. See 1 above.
          4. I used to use a food processor. The food processor cuts the butter in uniformly, and I've come to believe that this negatively affects the flakiness of the pastry. My heirloom, never-has-failed-in-umpty-twelve-years recipe tells me to cut the butter into the flour and salt until the particles range in size from rice to navy beans. So you have to use a pastry cutter. Just pull up your socks and do it.
          5. I make my pastry at least a half-day ahead and stick it in the fridge so it can chill properly. You can freeze pastry; just remember to thaw in the fridge. Yes, you have to bang the solidified lump with the rolling pin until it relaxes a little when you go to roll it out, but just pretend it's your boss. Roll out, fit the pastry to the pie plate, trim and flute the edge, and stick it back in the fridge while you prepare the filling and heat up the oven.

Do all of the above; get this (assuming, of course, that you're making
apple pie topped with a streusel)

          And the corollary to the commentary, because, even though it's long-winded, you must be convinced to Use Enough Water, and an example may help: My dad (who reads recipes for fun, but has never, to my knowledge actually made pie), directed me to a recipe for vodka pie crust that apparently made a huge impact when Cook's Illustrated published it in 2007. After my initial reaction (euuuuwwww! Nasty!), I decided to try it, for my dad's sake. Because I am The Good Daughter.
          Much is made, in the comments section of the various blogs where it is reprinted, of three things: 1—That's a LOT of liquid; 2—Wow, very flaky crust; and 3—It's No Fun to roll out.
          So I measured out the vodka and stuck it in the freezer to chill. Then I checked the fridge because I couldn't remember whether we were out of butter or not. We had butter, but not a lot, so I checked the recipe to see how much it needed. It needed three-quarters of a cup of butter and one-half cup shortening, for which I planned to sub butter because why use shortening when there's lovely butter in the world? So I added the amounts up and came up with one and one-quarter cups butter. For two and one-half cups of flour? No wonder it's beastly sticky to roll out!
          It then struck me that my heirloom crust recipe, which has never failed me, has two cups of flour and three-quarters of a cup of butter (a bit more than half the amount called for in the Most Wondrous Vodka Miraculous Pie Crust Magical recipe). It also has exactly the same amount of liquid (in this case, boring old ice water) as the MWVMPMC recipe that everyone seemed to think contained enormous amounts of liquid (one-quarter cup ice water, one-quarter cup chilled vodka).
          And then, it was as dawn breaking over the mountain tops: pie crust fail is directly related to not enough liquid to begin with! I checked my cookbook collection, and found that most pie crust recipes call for half the amount of water for the same amount of ingredients as my heirloom never-fail recipe. No wonder people have problems!
          I never made the Vodka Pie Crust. Mostly because it was my standard recipe with the addition of a little sugar and a whole lot more butter** and subbing vodka for half water, a strategy I fail to see the point of because 1—everyone claims you can't taste the vodka, so why use it in the first place, and 2—if you could taste the vodka, vodka-flavored pie crust just sounds nasty.
          I find the payoff is better if I use the vodka as God intended—in my favorite neighbor's martinis.

*Well, truly, I think about pie almost all the time.

**Actually shortening (but remember I was subbing butter for that), and while ideally I never object to butter, I have discovered that there is such a thing as Too Much Butter in pie crusts. I know, almost impossible to imagine, but there you are.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nineteen Dollars and Ninety-two Cents

          The other day, I disinterred my set of colored pencils from my art-school days, preparatory to illustrating a story about chickens soon to grace this blog, and I noticed the price sticker on the box.

Once so expensive

           Not quite $20 for a box of 24 colored pencils (the college bookstore had good prices for students), a price I wouldn't even think twice about paying today—in fact, a price I would find quite reasonable today, but I still remember how I agonized over it at the time. 
          We often had no more than $20 left over at the end of the month—more often, we had less. Twenty dollars for school supplies was extravagant in the extreme. Every time I used those pencils, I thought about how very expensive they were, about how irresponsible it was to be spending $20 on something besides groceries, utilities, or the mortgage. 
          The box of pencils sitting on my drawing table was a mute attestation to our lean years, to how hard we worked, to how we stretched our money, to how much we worried about it, to how sometimes it didn't stretch far enough. The fear of Not Making It that lived with me in those years washed over me again as I stared at the now perfectly affordable sum on that price tag.
          That we no longer have those struggles and worries gives me reason to be deeply thankful. However, we are living in lean times, and many of our compatriots are not as fortunate as K and I. 
           This isn't news to anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past three years, and here in Kansas City I've noticed an increase in the desire of those of us who can, to give charitably. 
           K and I make our donations to charity, but we also try to practice a community sort of charity, by spending our money in our community, with local businesses who spend their money in this community, instead of sending profits off to regional or national headquarters elsewhere.Working folks, struggling to support their families, deserve our support. Locally-owned businesses, which support the community in their turn, deserve our dollars.
          When you think about charitable giving this year, please consider that it's also charitable to give employment—to a handyman to finish some of the projects languishing on your to-do list; to the fireman who cleans gutters on his days off; to a painter to brighten up that room you've been meaning to get to; to the local hardware store or bookstore or shoe store. 
          When K and I were struggling, the only thing we asked for was a job; we took it from there. If you can, give that opportunity to someone else in this season of thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Holy Antlers, Batman!

Saint Anne, if memory serves, in the Danish National Museum
         The great thing about travel is not how broadening it is, or how much better the smørrebrød tastes Over There than it does in Missouri (go figure), but what a delightful lot of sublimely weird stuff you can find if you look for it.
          As you can see, I do look for it.
          I'm a westerner born and bred, and am not myself unfamiliar with the idiosyncratic use of antlers, usually in furnishings like these lovely items, found in a quick google:

Keen, yes? You can buy it here:

You know you need an antler chandelier:

Maybe a scary bar stool?

          Until I saw the St. Anne icon hanging from the ceiling of the Danish National Museum, though, I'd never seen antlers used in iconography.  I approve. I'm also very fond of the holiness spikes emanating from St. Anne in a kind of "noli me tangere"* nimbus. Even though this icon dates from the 16th or 17th century, its creator has managed to imbue it with Post-Ironic flourishes that charm the jaded palate of the modern museum-goer, turning St. Anne into a kind of backwoods punk beacon. Because who can resist a punk saint? Not me.

*"Touch me not." Good advice, I'd say.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

You Thought It Was Going to Be a Chicken, Didn't You?

         Nope, sorry. I like crows almost as much as chickens. This impressive guy was perched above a shop in Copenhagen. Some very stylish feathering going on there.
         According to J. E. Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols,  in Native American cultures, the crow is the great civilizer and the creator of the visible world. Celtic and Germanic tribes assigned it a similar meaning. They are also, of course, associated with death.
          Some species of crows not only use tools, but also construct them. What's not to love about a DIY bird?
         Skål to crows.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Woot! and Woof!

          Casey (Chateau Palos Kansas City Jazz Singer) is now Champion Casey (Ch Chateau Palos Kansas City Jazz Singer)! K handled her to a Best of Winners and Best Opposite Sex over two specials at the Ozarks Kennel Club show this weekend.
          Pooka and I are very proud of them.

Casey with her current fave squeaky, getting groomed for a show.

Chickens are Keen

          And K brought me this chicken from Sao Paolo. He knows I like chickens, even with all their faults.
          Yes, this post did come both out of nowhere and out of sequence (check the date). I often write my posts ahead and tell Blogger when to post them. Blogger thinks it's already November 14, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom. Also for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, Blogger won't let me edit this in any way that takes it down and re-posts it on the real November 14. I could just delete it, wait, and re-post, but you've already seen it, so I'm just going to say that we're turning to a chicken-themed bunch of posts, and I hope you enjoy them, even out of sequence.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lest We Forget

A bouquet in remembrance
     On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 1918, the armistice that ended World War One went into effect. We now celebrate Armistice Day as Veterans Day, and I've always felt the solemn weight of this holiday. It's more common, I know, for Americans to honor the war dead on Memorial Day, but for me the ceremony of remembrance of the dead has always been more appropriate in the dead month of November.
     Some people, when they visit a grave, leave a small stone on it, a testament to the fact that they came and paid their respects. I'd like this post to be my stone on the graves of the fallen: I came; I thought of you; I grieved.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pretty, Isn't She?

          K brought me this chicken from Rio de Janiero.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

With My Deepest Apologies to William Blake*

Little chicken, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, & bid thee peck
At every little spot and speck;
Gave thee feathers of delight;
Gave thee tattoos big and bright;
Gave thee such a stylish tail,

Colored just like ginger ale?
Little chicken, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little chicken, I'll tell thee,
Little chicken, I'll tell thee:
I remember not his name,
My bad memory is my shame.
His aesthetic is a bit askew;
He painted all your feathers blue.
He put boots upon your feet,
I have to say, they're very neat.
Little chicken, I love thee!

Little chicken, I love thee!

*But I am an unreformed sucker for parodies of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fall Bouquet

Early fall: very pretty
Later: stunning
I lost my heart to dogwoods one spring in New Jersey, but I could just as easily have fallen in love with them in a Missouri Autumn. This one is in our yard.