Seattle is in full bloom. I don’t just mean the flowers – I mean Seattle, all its people, all its markets, all its best sides are showing. The days are warm and dry, the nights crisp and clear, and it’s hard to imagine finding a better place to live life.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m feeling rather bloomy myself. I’ve always thought that not thinking of how things are is a sign of things being good. . . there’s less analyzing, adjusting, contemplating. And maybe that’s why I’ve been a little quiet lately. Besides my produce issues, life is so good. Perhaps, like all those poor trees, I went through painful pruning this spring just to feel healthier now.
Or maybe I’m just feeling the emotional aftershocks of a great new haircut. (It’s now chin-length in the front and short and sticky-outy in the back, and I dyed it all back to my natural dark blonde. Oooooh.)
A few days ago my neighbor Vicki called. “Teach me to make a pie crust,” she said. She’d once learned from her mother, but after several disastrous pies in a row, she reverted back to frozen crusts. Last week, she hit upon a sudden urge to start from scratch, so to speak. Her mother’s still alive, but she didn’t want her to know she’s forgotten. I paused, wondering if we’d use a fruit that might taste better plain, out of hand, and pushed the thought aside.
So we made a date. And yesterday at 2 p.m., she walked in with her great-grandmother’s rolling pin, and we went to work.
What she’d really asked was how I made pie crusts, and I admitted that since I developed lupus, I’ve been making them in the food processor, anything to avoid using my hands too much. But I didn’t like the idea of telling her how the slips of cold butter should hide between layers of flour without letting her touch it, without showing her how the dough feels as it picks up moisture a little bit at a time.
First we each made a crust using the traditional French technique: sabler, papillon, fraisage. We dumped the contents of my freezer onto the counter for a few minutes, to make the working surface good and cold so the butter wouldn’t melt, then shoved it all back in. I forced myself to go back to the ratios we learned for pate brisee in culinary school: flour to fat to liquid, 3 to 2 to 1. We each piled a cup and a half of flour on my counter and mixed it with a little salt. We dumped a stick of butter, cut into chunks, and a tablespoon of shortening into the flour, and worked it into pea-size bits with our hands, feeling the slippery, cold fat glide under our fingernails and the flour beginning to adhere to the pads of our thumbs. I could feel the space at the base of my thumbs tense up as I squashed the butter between them and my fingertips, but I ignored it: pie crust is worth a bit of pain, I think. We each pushed our dough into a long pile, bulldozed a channel down the center of the pile with our fingertips, and added a tablespoon of vinegar-spiked ice water to the center of the valley, fluffing the flour and butter over the water and then mixing it all together with the help of a pastry scraper. We bulldozed and watered and fluffed a few more times, almost 5 tablespoons of water in all, until the dough begin to cling together in big lumps. We used the heels of our hands to smear the dough into the counter, pushing away in the same plane as the counter to help develop the gluten that keeps a pie crust together, and Vicki giggled and wiped the flour off her shirt. I wondered how Bromley had gotten so much flour on her head.
We each made a second batch in the food processor, to know exactly how much easier and how much less fulfilling that modern method is, and secreted four heavy lumps of dough into the corner of the fridge in little foil packages. They rested, and waited. Pie crust is much more patient than a person.
After dinner, we consulted Rose Levy Beranbaum, pie and pastry queen extraordinaire, on what to do with the pounds and pounds of pluots we’d gathered at the farmers’ market over the weekend for the project. Of course, good ol’ Rose stuck to more traditional fruits, so we improvised the filling, each mixing 1/2 cup sugar, 2 1/2 tablespoons flour, and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon together in a mixing bowl, then adding 5 sliced yellow pluots and 5 sliced red pluots to each of our bowls.
Vicki got out her rolling pin, and I took down the striped one Tito made me on his father’s lathe, and together we rolled our our dough and laughed and drank wine and oh, it was all just easy as pie. That must be where the saying comes from, then. Life felt so easy, despite the deadlines, the to-do lists. I showed Vicki how how to make a double-crusted pie with her dough, and we put a cute hole in the top and decorated it with little cut-outs of leftover dough, arranged in the shape of a flower. I made my pie with a cheater lattice (no actual criss-crossing, just stripes in one direction, then stripes in the other direction), and we brushed them both with an egg glaze made with an egg and a tablespoon of half and half. We showered them with a thin layer of sugar, since we’d made the dough without. We froze them for a few minutes, just to make sure they were good and cold going into the oven, then baked them for an hour at 425.
In the time it took to make the pies, we decided that yes, pie is worth making from scratch. That no, we did not mind the mess. That no, we didn’t really think it mattered that much how good the pie was, because we had so much fun doing it (but for the record, it was delicious). And that yes, everyone should have a kitchen big enough to accommodate two cooking bodies, because that, the summer kitchen, with the wind blowing through the back door and a big floury handprint on the ass of your jeans, is part of the recipe for a good life.
I feel a little sorry that I got caught up in the moment and was lazy about my notes. I know my ingredient measurements were right, but that I can’t tell you how thin I rolled my dough, or how long I let the rolled-out pie dough rest again in the fridge before assembling the pie.
But only a little sorry – I’ve just had pie for lunch. And a plate of sliced tomatoes, with olive oil and sea salt. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and I feel reconciled with summer.