December 06, 2003

There is pie in our immediate future.  We are receiving 6 inches of snow today on top of the 6 inches of snow we got yesterday.  This morning I had the bright idea to go outside with digital camera and take pictures of my neighborhood, the famous beautiful uptown Astoria, and its new cover of snow.  I lasted long enough to take one picture, a long shot of the block where we live, and then decided that I could wait until the temperature got above 22 before heading to the park.  So there will not be pictures, but there will be pie.  Maybe there will be pictures of pie, since I am one of those sad sacks who takes pictures of my own loaves of bread when they turn out nicely.

As I mentioned yesterday, I have been on a bit of a pie bender this fall, ever since I went to a bread class in Vermont and picked up a book called Apple Pie Perfect by Ken Haedrich.  Although I’ve been baking pies, at least twice a year, for most of my adult life, I didn’t really feel that I had got the hang of them until about four years ago.  Everything I made would be almost-but-not-quite right, at least to me.  (Lloyd would have the same comment every time:  “Don’t be sad.  You always have a little learning curve with a recipe, but after you make it once, you get the hang of it.  Is there more?  Is there ice cream left to go with it?")

I didn’t have a lot of patience with Lloyd’s observation, or with the oft-repeated advice in cookbooks that experience is the best teacher—if that’s the case, then why did I just shell out $35.00 for your book?—but having bought plenty of those books, and having made plenty of pies, I will now allow that the more you do it, the more you know what to look for.  John Thorne, the author/publisher of the newsletter Simple Cooking, has said that there are bread people and there are pastry people in the way that there are dog people and there are cat people.  I would add that there are dog and cat people, and there are bread and pastry people.  Thorne describes the differences as a matter of methodology:  bread people enjoy the shaggy-dog-love straightforwardness of bread dough, which, within limits, will cheerfully take any rough play, any pummelling, you want to give it.  Pastry people, on the other hand, appreciate some coolness, a restrained hand, an understanding that if you handle your pie crust just so, it will reward you in its own self-contained, flinty-eyed way.  I don’t disagree with him, but I think there is more to bread love, and pastry love, than that.  I think it’s all part of a bigger animal, namely ingredient love.  I love the feel of bread dough in my hands; I love building a starter, when you start with nothing but water and flour exuding the scent of clean wheat, feeding it over five days until you end up with a starter, redolent of whatever wild yeast is abundant on the grain and/or in your kitchen.  For some reason, every starter I’ve ever cultured in this kitchen takes on an apple-like tang, even though I’ve never put a single slice of apple in a single starter.  I love knowing that you don’t have to knead the dough into submission to develop gluten properly, that you can use a light touch to blend the ingredients together, then put the dough up to ferment, then go back to that dough after an hour and give it a series of folds, and when you’re done folding it, the dough feels tighter and firmer, the gluten is starting to do its job.  I also love putting a pie crust together, taking loose amalgamations of flour, fat and liquid, so resistant to joining up, and yet they do join up, and nicely enough that you can roll them into a sheet.  I love that as long as you take care of your butter, don’t try to moosh it completely into the dough, it will reward you by yielding a flaky crust and a warm golden hue.  Even though I have washed my hands carefully so as not to smut up my spiffy new laptop with butter and flour, my fingers are still redolent of butter and flour.  It is driving me crazy, happily so.

The pie crust adventure came close to ending less than happily, though.  Old habits die hard, and one of my oldest habits was underhydrating pie dough, and then wondering why it would crumble underneath the rolling pin.  For years, I thought that the problem was with me, that I just didn’t have the touch.  Then I read Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay “Pies from Paradise,” in The Man Who Ate Everything, in which he identifies the Nasty Gluten Theory of Flaky Tender Crisp American Piecrust.  The prevailing wisdom in baking books is that you want to avoid everything you can to develop gluten in a crust, since gluten is what makes a pie crust tough, and makes it shrink in baking.  Certainly too much gluten will yield you a crust that looks like parchment and chews like gum, and yet, as Steingarten says, too little gluten is as bad as too much.  This should not be radical advice—if you want this dough to stand up in a pie pan, of course it should have enough structural integrity to do so—but most pie crust recipes I’ve read are fond of warning you that even a teaspoon too much liquid will result in hideous gluten overdevelopment, and once you’re past the point of no return, you might as well hang it up and go buy your pie at McDonald’s, you clumsy oaf.  Jeffrey Steingarten taught me otherwise.  Jeffrey Steingarten is my hero.

I mix the pie crust.  It’s crumbly.  Add more water.  Still crumbly.  Add more water.  Still crumbly, but basically holding together.  I compress the crumbs into two semi-cohesive piles, wrap ‘em up, let ‘em sit in the fridge to relax the gluten and hydrate the crust evenly.  I join Lloyd in the living room, where he is watching Black Rain.  Michael Douglas still has his own structural integrity.  Andy Garcia looks about 12.  I head back out to the kitchen, retrieve the pie crust from the fridge and start rolling.  Cracking, crumbling, unmitigated disaster.  I try patching the dough with more scraps cut from the perimeter of the dough.  Crack, crumble, crack, crumble.  I wonder if kneading the dough will help—but you can’t knead pie crust!  Nasty gluten!  Nasty gluten!  Then I calm down, breathe, get quiet inside.  I remember the best piece of cooking advice I ever got, from the assistant pastry chef at the hip-n-fancy Italian restaurant where I interned after culinary school.  I can’t remember what I was working with on that day, chocolate maybe, but it wasn’t working, and I was nervous, frustrated and terrified of screwing up.  I didn’t realize she was watching me, because she was busy simultaneously making caramel and pate brisee and quince sorbet base, all without breaking a sweat, but she walked over to me and said, nicely, “Never fight with your ingredients, because your ingredients will always win.”

So I consider what is in front of me, what kind of touch it requires.  I start to knead it, gently, so as not to melt the pieces of butter in the dough, and surprise!  it smoothes out, that what was crumbly now is cohesive, that which wanted to split apart now wants to stay together.  I rewrap everything, throw it back in the fridge to give it a rest, knowing that when the time comes to roll it out, it will roll.  There is pie in our immediate future.

Posted by Bakerina at 06:07 PM in stuff and nonsense • (1) Comments
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