November 29, 2004

Well, dear friends, if Lloyd decides he wants shoofly pie for breakfast every day, I will provide with alacrity.  While Lloyd was at the laundromat (where he goes every Sunday morning even though I know he'd rather be sleeping in), while a steady and petulant cold rain beat down on the neighborhood, I crawled out of bed and made this:

Shoofly

This was the first shoofly I'd made in about ten years, and it had a valuable lesson to teach me.  This is a "wet-bottom" shoofly, similar to pudding cake, with a moist-yet-firm top and a sauce-like bottom.  Like gingerbreads, shooflies vary greatly in texture from recipe to recipe:  there are shooflies with wet, sticky fillings; there are shooflies with dry fillings, suitable for eating with your hands and dunking into coffee; there are probably dozens of variations in between.  My stepgrandmother, who died when I was 13, was an ace baker and a fan of the dry shoofly.  Hers is my reference point, as it was the first shoofly I'd ever tried.  Hers also had a pronounced crumb topping, and a very subtle hint of molasses; I think she divided the sweetener between molasses and brown sugar.  With any luck, I'll know for sure soon, as my folks went to visit my aunt, my stepdad's sister, this afternoon and my stepdad said he would ask my aunt if she still has the recipe.  Dear friends, I have to get a handle on this compulsion to bake variations on a theme.  I should be starting my Christmas cookies, or making a plan for my 2005 egg research, or reactivating my sourdough starters.  What the world does not need is six different shooflies, straight from my oven.

On the other hand, maybe it does.  smile

This particular pie, the one I made this morning, comes from The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, who got the recipe from Pennsylvania food historian William Woys Weaver.  Some shoofly recipes suggest replacing part of the molasses with brown sugar, to cut down on the molasses-y intensity, but this recipe goes in the other direction, actually boosting the dark acidity of the pie with a cup of coffee.  (The recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of powdered espresso dissolved in 3/4 cup boiling water, but you can also use regular, strong coffee.)  The pie itself is a doddle to prepare:  roll out your crust (use the crust recipe of your choice, and really, if you are a fan of the storebought crust, then by all means, use it here), line your 9-inch pie plate, stick it in the fridge or the freezer to chill.  While it is chilling, heat your oven to 425 degrees (Gas Mark 7 for those of you across the pond), move your oven rack to its lowest position, put a baking sheet on the rack and let the oven heat for 20 minutes. While the oven heats and the pastry chills, make your coffee and set it aside until it is warm (not boiling, not cold).  Make a streusel with 1 1/4 cups flour (Rose specifies bleached all-purpose flour, but I used unbleached pastry flour instead; unbleached all-purpose would also probably work, although your pie might be a little denser), 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg and 1 stick (4 oz.) butter.  To make the streusel, combine the dry ingredients until well-blended, then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter, two butter knives or your fingertips (I like the fingertip method myself).  Take the pie shell from the fridge or freezer and pour the streusel into the pie shell.  Make sure the streusel is evenly distributed in the shell.  Pour your coffee into a medium mixing bowl, add 1 tsp. baking soda, stir it in and add 3/4 cup unsulfured molasses (either "light" or "full-flavored" will work; since I don't believe in half-measures with this pie, I used the strong stuff).  Pour the coffee and molasses mixture over the streusel.  Some of the crumbs will sink; others will float to the surface.  Put the pie on the preheated baking sheet in the oven and bake for 15 minutes; check the pie and cover the edges with a foil ring if it looks like they are getting too dark.  Turn the oven down to 350 degrees (Gas Mark 4) and bake for an additional 30 minutes. 

As with all pies, it is best not to eat this right out of the oven, but unlike fruit pies or custard pies, you don't have to let this one cool down all the way before you eat it.  You can eat this while it's still warm.  In fact, I would urge you to go bake this pie as soon as possible, just so you can eat it, warm, for breakfast.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:07 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
November 27, 2004

Dear friends,

I know what you're thinking:  What, no Thanksgiving postmortem?  No minute-by-minute analysis of the 500-degree turkey roast?  Did you even *make* a turkey dinner, or is it all just elaborate subterfuge?

Dear friends, I apologize for dropping the ball.  The best part of Thanksgiving is always the recap, both in the eating of leftovers for breakfast and in the getting on the phone with your friends and relatives to gossip about your other friends and relatives.  I'm sure there is a Thanksgiving recap in me somewhere, but I will save it until I come back from the Outside World with the spoils of Birthday Gift Card Shopping.

I will say this, though:  I don't know who invented the idea of pie for breakfast -- English peasants?  New England settlers?  Carolina rice farmers?  the Amish? -- but whoever did invent it has conferred a mitzvah upon humanity.  I used to think that the apex of civilization was the eating of a plate of cold stuffing and cranberry sauce the day after Thanksgiving.  Then Lloyd said "can we have pie for breakfast?" and I remembered that our pumpkin pie, the one I so ignominiously sloshed on its journey to the oven floor, turned into the best pumpkin pie I have ever made in my life, and probably will ever make again.  He brought me a slice on a saucer, and with the first bite I cursed my childhood bad attitude all over again, the one that wouldn't touch a pumpkin pie until I was in high school.  If I had thought things through, I would have realized that pumpkin pie is, essentially, a custard pie, pumpkin flavored with eggs and milk and cream and sugar.  It's pudding, and how much pudding did I put away as an enthusiastic youngster?  But no, I was too fixated on the horror of eating squash for dessert, and thus did I find myself eating slice after slice of halfhearted storebought apple pie.  Now I am grown, and I have no such qualms now, and I wonder what this pie would taste like with the huge, amazing, multihued squashes available at the market.  What would happen if I tried Delicata squash, the long yellow-with-green-striations squash that changed my mind about squash as a young adult?  Turban squashes, kabochas, those enormous Blue Hubbards the size of a small dog:  I look at them all and see new possibilities.  I'm also flirting with the idea of sweet potato pie, but I'm more shy about this one, as one of my co-workers, a LuthorCorp mailroom lifer, makes a sweet potato pie that is easily the best pie I've ever eaten.  I have never made a pie as good as that one.  If I'm lucky, one day I'll make one that is *almost* as good.

As I continue squashing that smooth gorgeous pumpkin custard against my palate, I turn to my well-perused copy of Pascale Le Draoulec's American Pie and reread the chapter where Pascale and her traveling buddy Kris meet some New Order Mennonites in south-central Pennsylvania; these sweet and friendly young women tell them about the mighty shoofly pie, so well-loved here that some people eat it with every meal.  While I did not grow up in Amish country (I lived in a far more northeasterly county), I did grow up amidst dairy farmers, and most of my friends and classmates were farm kids.  I remember thinking that I'd dodged a bullet, not being born into a farm family.  The worst I ever had to deal with was weeding the garden, pulling the big rocks out of the garden before my stepdad started tilling, mowing the lawn, getting the windfall apples off the ground while they were still good to use, feeding the chickens and getting the eggs.  I didn't have to get up at 4:30 so I could start milking the cows by 5, I didn't have to come directly home after school so I could be there for the afternoon milking, I didn't have to win the trust of evil-tempered goats, and most of all, I didn't have to spend the hottest days of August cutting and baling hay.  I would look out in the distance at our closest neighbors, all four kids covered in sweat and dust, each carrying bales of hay that weighed as much as they did, two at a time.  At the time, I thought I was lucky, but now I think I was a dope.  These are the kind of families who could, and did, eat pie at every meal.  If I could have pie at every meal, I would wake up at 4, I would go to bed at midnight, and I would cut hay nonstop in the meantime.  I would let myself be stung by angry bees.  Alas, I spend most of my time in a cubicle, or in library study carrels, and I get, at best, five hours of exercise a week, not nearly enough to justify pie at every meal.

Breakfast, though, breakfast I can handle.  I have to tread carefully, though, because if I don't, Lloyd will want shoofly for breakfast every day.  And I'll probably oblige.

Shoofly recipe will be forthcoming when I get home.  Pumpkin recipe could also be made available, if you're not burned out on pumpkin pie by now.

Posted by Bakerina at 10:58 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments
November 25, 2004

Good morning and happy Thanksgiving, dear friends.

As a child I was told that the day would come when I'd no longer want to brag about this, but it hasn't happened yet.  Today is my birthday.  I am 37 today.  It's not a particular milestone of a birthday, but it still bemuses me.  When my mother was 37, I was a senior in high school.  She was a child bride, and I was a little younger than my fellow high school seniors, but still, the idea of my sloppy and feckless self being the parent of a teenager feels as remote as the Russian steppes, and serves to remind me once again of what a brilliant and amazing woman my mom is.  At some point today, I will call her and thank her for the million million things she has done for me, with extra thanks for not leaving me on a bus somewhere, as I have so richly deserved many times in the past.

"Are you sure you don't mind cooking Thanksgiving dinner on your birthday?" says Lloyd. "Are you kidding?" says I.

It is 11 a.m. and I am just about recovered from yesterday's office potluck.  Normally I am not a fan of office events, but the potluck is special, a 30+ year tradition of Funky Little Company's.  Everybody brings something, two or three people take care of the wine, we all eat too much, most of us drink too much.  At some point before the party starts, I sneak down to the farmer's market to pick up my turkey and the last of the vegetables.  I put them someplace where they will stay cold, and then I join the party.  About midway through, the legacy Funky Little Company managers break away from the party with a bottle of good vodka and toast the memory of one of the salespeople, a Funky Little Company lifer, who died in 1999.  We recommence eating and drinking, we help clean up, and I stagger home drunkenly to do as much advance prep as I can before collapsing in front of whatever Lloyd has put on the DVD player.

We are having comedy Thanksgiving this year.  Lloyd, lovely man that he is, gave me America: The Book and Matt Groening's The Big Book of Hell, which was particularly sweet to get, because the year that it was originally released was the year I started working at Tower Books, making $5/hour, unable to pay my rent, having to make choices between food and laundry, and thus The Big Book of Hell was not an option for me that year.  I have spent the morning -- at least the portion of the morning not making celery remoulade or rolling out pie dough -- cooing over the Groening book ("they have the 1984 strips!  Sharon and I used to cut these out of the paper and hang them over our desks!"wink, reading the best bits out of America: The Book, and listening to the Goon Show and Firesign Theatre.  In four hours the turkey will go in the oven; in the meantime, I will mix and bake the pie, start the stock for the gravy (made from chicken stock, the neck, giblets and wingtips of the turkey, maybe a chicken foot or two, a peeled shallot), make the stuffing and prep the potatoes, both mashed and sweets.  I will have a little hard cider, and then I will have a little more.  smile

Dear friends, even with my year of mewling and puking, I do have a lot for which to give thanks this year.  For starters, I am glad for all of you, for your myriad kindnesses and words of advice and care and encouragement, for sharing your good hearts with me.  Thank you all.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:51 PM in stuff and nonsense • (2) Comments
November 24, 2004

Nestled into this interesting and whimsical roundup of Thanksgiving Takeout and Convenience Foods for the Easily Exhausted, which was written by Sandy Thorn Clark and which ran in Monday's Chicago Sun-Times, is this jewel of food Dadaism:

Though supermarkets like Dominick's, Jewel-Osco and Moo & Oink offer oven roasted and/or smoked turkeys for those counting minutes rather than dollars, consumers who prefer frozen turkeys have a less time-consuming option: Jennie-O Turkey Store Oven Ready Turkey, a mind-boggling frozen turkey (minus the messiness of the neck, gizzards or giblets) that goes directly to the oven without defrosting.

In response to a Gallup poll in which 48 percent of new entertainers and 20 percent of seasoned entertainers said whole turkeys are difficult to prepare, messy, time-consuming and intimidating, Jennie-O created an oven roasting bag that requires only six tiny slits before the turkey is roasted at 350 degrees for about four hours depending on size. Whole turkeys weigh 11 to 13 or 17 to 19 pounds; half turkeys weigh 5 to 7 pounds.

Do I even want to know what sort of Better Living Through Chemistry was required to bring us a freezer-to-oven turkey?  Or am I just too easily horrified?  Be honest, dear friends.  Considering that I am more than a little depressed by the thought of the sous-chef at Fox & Obel finding it necessary to give suggestions like "sprinkle pumpkin seeds on our pumpkin soup!  put our deli salads in beautiful bowls!," I am more than willing to consider that it might just be me.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:16 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (2) Comments • (0) Trackbacks
November 22, 2004

I have mentioned twice, in passing, that last night's posted cornbread and prosciutto stuffing recipe was created by the late Laurie Colwin, who I used to describe as "my absolute, positive favorite living writer" until that terrible Sunday in October of 1992 when, curled up with my brand-new fiance in our fourth-floor walkup studio on 15th and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, I opened the Inquirer and read it: "Laurie Colwin, 48, Prolific Author." I felt the texture of the air change after I read that headline, rather like the way the air changes when you are suddenly slapped across the face. All of a sudden, you realize that the air you have been breathing up to that moment has been filled with something familiar and reassuring, and that something is snatched away from you and replaced with something hard and mean, and you know you will be breathing it for the rest of your life.

Before I go any further, I must clarify: Laurie Colwin and I had never met. To say that I considered her a friend feels like the height of presumption to me, simply because she had friends, plenty of them, people in whose lives she was embedded, who lost much more than I did when they lost her. I could try to claim some kind of kinship or meeting of minds based on how her writing, both her fiction and her essays for Gourmet that eventually turned into the collections Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, but the fact is, our minds never met and any feelings of kinship are strictly one-sided. Nevertheless, I can't deny that with the exception of my parents, Ms. Colwin was the single greatest influence on my adult cooking life. I bought my copy of Home Cooking the year I graduated from college and began to cook for myself, and it is safe to say that I have thought of Ms. Colwin at least once a day ever since. It is thanks to her that I started shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket the year that I moved to New York; that I began searching out meat and poultry and eggs and produce from non-intensively-farmed sources; that I bought and read The Taste of America, the book that caused a quantum shift in the way I thought about food, cooking and history; that I started buying bags of fermented black beans in Chinatown to throw into my tomato and eggplant sauce; that I started reading Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, the other two-thirds of my culinary triumverate; that I discovered what a beautiful thing English food could be as long as it was prepared with care and skill; that I learned how to make jam, and thus developed the confidence to branch into jelly from there. I once wrote an essay about her for the foodies.com e-group newsletter, in which I mentioned that my copies of Home Cooking and More Home Cooking were so worn out that they were pretty much held together by faith and little else. In addition to cooking from these books, I read and reread and reread them. I read them on the subway, to and from work and the market. I have read them in the bathtub. I have read them while in the throes of depression, and I have read them while recovering from migraines, when I felt just well enough to read but not well enough to do anything else.

My introduction to Laurie Colwin began long before she started writing for Gourmet, before I'd had even the slightest idea of what sort of hold she'd have over my own foodways. Her short story "My Mistress," part of the collection Another Marvelous Thing, was included in the 1985 Best American Short Stories collection, edited by Shannon Ravenel. "My Mistress" is a sweet sad beauty of a story, the tale of the adulterous lovers Francis Clemens and Josephine "Billy" Delille, who carry on an affair as sweet as it is futureless. Francis is a middle-aged, wealthy, socially prominent husband and father of adult children; his life is orderly, the kind of order born out of having money and applying it usefully and well. Billy is an economics professor, married to a mathematician as brilliant and socially maladroit as she is; she is messy and no-frills, living in cheerful chaos, dressed in ratty clothing and shoes held together with duct tape. They both love their spouses. Francis is a devoted father. Billy knows that one day she and her husband Grey will have a baby. They are embedded in their own lives, fiercely in love with the details of those lives, fully aware that each is baffled by the way that the other lives and would wither were they to live in such circumstances, and yet they love each other with an intensity that shakes them. I read this story in college after a steady diet of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. To say that it shook up some preconceived notions I'd had on a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing is putting it mildly. Not surprisingly, I found the most evocative and deeply-rendered moment in the story to be the one that involved food. Frank and Billy decide to go to New England for a stolen vacation. As they lie in bed together, Billy announces that she is going to fix them a snack, and returns with a plate of toasted cheese on bread. Francis observes that this is the first thing she has ever cooked for him, as her sustenance usually takes the form of tough little water biscuits and a squirt of seltzer from a siphon on her desk. Billy watches him contemplate the toasted cheese and she bursts into tears, admitting that she has no idea what sort of meal he may have wanted. They end up devouring the hot, slightly greasy, crunchy sandwiches, keeping them warm in a cold room, and in that moment, everyone -- Francis, Billy, the reader -- has exactly what they need.

Ms. Colwin was an absolute genius at conveying mood through food in her novels and stories. She wrote about admiring Barbara Pym and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers for putting food to terrific use in their books, but I think that she had a pearl-perfect talent for it, easily on a par with Washington Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Her novel Happy All the Time, about two cousins, best friends from childhood, and the women they end up courting and marrying, is rich with food metaphors and signifiers. After the first night that Guido Morris and his beloved Holly Sturgis spend together, he feels overwrought by the consummation of their relationship, dazzled and panicked, and he is unnerved and infuriated by Holly's unflappability as she calmly does the Sunday crossword puzzle, sitting at table in her nightshirt, "neat as a cupcake." Misty Berkowitz spends nearly half the book putting up a prickly, elegant defense against the attentions of Guido's cousin, Vincent Cardworthy; when she realizes that she has fallen in love with Vincent and agrees to marry him, she feels "as well-placed in the universe as a fresh loaf of bread." Holly, independently wealthy and a pursuer of knowledge for knowledge's sake, is also a marvelous cook; her perfectionist and mercurial nature is tempered by the generosity of spirit that shines through her cooking. She prepares kippers, scrambled eggs and a croquembouche for Vincent and Misty's wedding breakfast, and she and Misty join together in a newly-found sense of kinship and affection and produce the meal that ends the novel: grilled striped bass that Vincent and Guido catch earlier in the day, salad, potatoes, a Lady Baltimore cake they buy in the village where they are spending the weekend. Even lines that seem like throwaways are full of meaning: in her last novel, A Big Storm Knocked It Over, she starts a sentence with "After they devoured a few excellent sandwiches..." and suddenly I found myself at a posh overpriced midtown deli, ordering smoked turkey and boursin cheese on an onion ficelle. Now that, I thought, is a writer.

A Big Storm Knocked It Over and More Home Cooking were her last published works, appearing in 1993, nearly a full year after her death. More Home Cooking was particularly agonizing for me to read, because I knew this would be it: no more trolling the library for her new novels, no more Gourmet columns. I could not imagine a universe in which there were no more words to be had from her, and while I have( just barely) reconciled myself to this, it always catches me around Thanksgiving and manages to land at least one good blow, not unlike the one I caught on my ear last week on the subway. Thanksgiving is usually a high point of the year for me, for the whole food-preparation ritual, for the four-day weekend, for the Thanksgiving birthday I have once every six years. At some point, though, I remember that Ms. Colwin's final column for Gourmet ran a month after her death, in which she wrote about finally tiring of the cornbread and prosciutto stuffing, and coming up with a new stuffing that was so successful that there were no leftovers, and her sadness about not being able to eat a nice plate of cold stuffing for breakfast was mitigated by the fact that she had found a new stuffing she could eat happily for years. She closes the column by saying that someday it will be her daughter's turn to host Thanksgiving, and she looked forward to see what new traditions would begin at her daughter's table. I think of this, and I miss her so terribly.

(A beautiful tribute to Ms. Colwin by her childhood friend Willard Spiegelman, printed in Gastronomica, can be found here. One of my favorite essays from Home Cooking, "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir," can be found here.)

Posted by Bakerina at 12:37 AM in valentines • (1) Comments
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