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Pie of My Eye

As easy as what?

By Gretchen Giles

Whoever it was to first utter the terrible lie "as easy as pie" has presumably already suffered a horrible death. I personally feel no remorse or compassion for this passing. I much prefer to embrace the giddy Gallic truth of "as easy as pâté" or the Italianate flourish of "as easy as pesto." Either of these phrases need merely be uttered in front of a food processor, and voilà (and Prego)--there they be. Easily.

Pie is a different donkey. And like a donkey, pie is stubborn, unpredictable, follows no known tune, and is changeable from moment to moment. There ain't nothing easy about it.

To be fair, perhaps that awful liar was thinking of filling when he or she first mentioned pie in easy terms. Filling is indeed a cinch. Peel some fruit, cut it up, sugar and spice it, add a bit of tapioca or flour, let it sit. Pick some fruit, sugar and spice it, add a bit of tapioca or flour, let it sit. Open a can, spoon out the pumpkin, sugar and spice it, add evaporated milk, let it sit. In any case, pour the filling into a pan for baking. Which brings us with mighty immediacy to the rub of all pie plights: the damned crust.

Foolproof evidence that cooking is nothing but chemistry for the mouth, the science of crust makes quantum physics seem like preschool fodder. Poke around long enough, and you'll eventually figure quarks out completely. Spend a lifetime weeping in an apron over a well-floured board, and you still may never discover all of the disparate miracles that must conspire together in order to form a crust. Temperature plays a part, liquid tends to matter, and surely measurement itself demands a starring role in the bawdy passion play that is crust making.

The rest is pure mystery, sometimes containing vinegar, other times calling for unsalted butter, and often demanding shortening, lemon peel, or frozen orange juice--depending on whose time-honored recipe you wreak havoc upon in the tear-stained privacy of your own home.

But leveling flour, eyeing cold liquid, and determining from the little lines on the cube's package what five teaspoons of butter might look like requires an exactness of spirit that I simply don't possess. Nor, warns a chilly voice in my soul, may I ever.

Which is why the telephone is such a great invention. Handily picking one up, I call Condra Easley, co-owner with sister Deborah Morris of the Patisserie Angelica in Santa Rosa. I explain that the backyard blackberries are ripening swiftly and that a sepia-tinged string of maternal lineage demands I try to cook them somehow. (Jam is best not discussed here; suffice it to say that the last of former summers' exertions has finally been scraped off the ceiling.) Pie it must be.

Wah and help, say I.

"You've got two options," Easley helpfully informs. "The kind of crust my mom made, or the kind for those who feel that Crisco is incorrectly classified as a foodstuff. My mom had a no-fail pie crust recipe, and it did have a dash of vinegar to it. You could do the most obscene things to this crust and it would still turn out."

Obscene is great, as it is almost guaranteed. I urge her on.

"Pastry making is part science and part art," she instructs, admitting, "I don't understand all of the scientific mystery surrounding it; I like the art part." As one who's stood over a desk greedily gobbling down in full gulps the little pastry tarts that Easley turns out, I'll trust her on the art part. Gimme, I delicately request, some science.

"Well, one of the biggest problems for home cooks is measurement," she responds.

Don't I know it.

"Three of us could each measure a cup of flour and come out with three different amounts. If you're not weighing it on a scale in ounces, you're going to end up with variations. That's also why most home pie crust recipes call for between 8 to 10 teaspoons of water, to account for the variables in the flour amount."

Back to art, I plead, already beginning to feel defeated.

"Well, I do mine in the Cuisinart," she says, sadly beginning to not delineate Mom's no-fail recipe but rather the tetchy French method of pâte brisée. You want no-fail, you call a mom. You want tetchy French, you call a professional chef. Lesson learned.

"I use cold butter, not frozen, and pulse the machine, not just push the 'on' button on," she advises. "You're trying to suspend the fat in the flour. That's going to help give you a lighter, flakier dough."

"Lighter," "flakier"--good words. I'm nodding and memorizing. "Heavier," "crumblier," and "sodden" are my more usual adjectives.

"When it's time to add the liquid," she continues, "I always hold back and continue to pulse until the dough just starts to come together, and then I get in there with my hands because sometimes just by looking at it, you can't tell if it's working or not."

Sometimes I can't tell if it's working or not with my hands, I mournfully counter. What do you do when the whole thing inevitably falls to hell, a pile of flour with unsuspended fat sort of avalanching onto the board under even the gentlest of pats?

"Sprinkle water in with your fingers as you go," Easley counsels. "But be careful! The more you knead it, the more gluten you'll develop. Of course, if you add too little water you'll get shrinkage. And, if you don't let it rest long enough, you'll get shrinkage."

That sounds awful. What's shrinkage?

"When there isn't enough dough to fit the pan," she says evenly, beginning to sound like a busy pastry chef and store owner caught smack in the middle of the day by an irritating home cook with press credentials.

Well, I offer sweetly, resting is good. How long does that last?

"Go have a glass of wine," she advises. "Sip it slowly. Perhaps a cognac."

Resting and wine. I make note that pie crust has some positives I hadn't considered before.

But we're back to flour, presumably now a bit tipsy and wielding a rolling pin. "Use as little flour as possible on the board and pin to keep it from sticking," Easley warns, explaining that again it's a gluten thing, meaning that it's a science thing, meaning that certain mysteries shall remain unexplained.

"The final thing I tell my students is that if you want a round, begin with a round," she continues somewhat cryptically.

I've been daydreaming for a moment about chilled glasses of Viognier.

Huh? I ask in professional journalistic style.

"It's a lot easier to preform your dough into a round shape and press it down, before you start rolling," she reiterates.

I can only concur. A moment of silence elapses, the sound of customers purchasing little frangipani or figgy-berry tarts in Easley's shop begins to filter through the phone. I sense that it's time to add the filling and pop this conversation into the oven, as it were. I thank Easley profusely.

"Remember," she says, "the great thing about pie is that even if it's a total flop--it still tastes good."

That's one piece of advice I already knew.

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From the August 8-14, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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