Monday, July 23, 2012

Still thriving, still humming

Friends, I'm sorry about the long silence. My grandmother--the one whose fruit pies I grew up on--passed away two weeks ago. So for the past little while, I've been in Toronto with family, mostly trying just to be there, especially for my father. It's been hard on all of us but especially on him. 
I spoke at the funeral service. It wasn't the eulogy, just a few words. I thought that it was important that one of the grandchildren say something. My grandmother had been there for all of us when we were young. We'd all run amuck in her garden, worn the sweaters she knit, sat at the kitchen table listening to her stories, pie crumb still stuck to our little faces. I thought that it was important to honour all that and to say something about just how much she'd still mattered to us, though we'd all grown up and gone away. 
Writing it was difficult. I wanted to be honest. Being away at school, I hadn't seen my grandmother much in recent years, and when I had, I wasn't always sure of what to say. I'd felt the distance of generations, of different opportunities given and won, of diverging paths lived out, between us. I'd thought that we were more different than similar. But walking through her vegetable garden, still thriving, still humming, it struck me that the differences were not so great, that her earnestness, her kindness, her willingness to get her hands dirty, to do it all herself--these were all qualities of hers that had made an impression on me, qualities that I had aspired towards all along. I only wish that I could have told her this, that there had been more time to talk about making pies and growing tomatoes and all of those other things we'd both come to love. So that's what I told the crowd that day.
My parents had me scan some photos from old family albums that had been at my grandmother's house.  It's an amazing collection--black-and-white photos from the 1940s and on of my grandparents and my father and his siblings like I've never seen them before. The one above is my favourite. I'm not sure where it was taken or who the photographer was, but my grandmother looks so happy, so beautiful there. My guess is that it was probably 1949 or 1950 at the time. She wouldn't have been much older than me. I couldn't resist sharing this one photo with you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Pie Wisdom

Sour-cherry pie
I come from a family of serious pie-makers. Long before I was around, both of my grandparents on my father's side of the family were busy making pies for the restaurant they ran together. And though the restaurant has long since closed, the pie-making has gone on strong. Seeing my grandmother, as a kid, whatever the occasion, meant that a slice of pie, heavy with the season's fruit, was not far off. And my mother, having learned from my grandmother, has carried on that tradition. There is always one of her apple pies, still warm from the oven, waiting for me the night I get home from school for a visit. Digging into a slice of pie at the kitchen table while catching up with my mother--that's just a part of what coming home is for me.
I wish I could say that some of my family's abundant pie-wisdom had made its way to me. But growing up, I just wasn't all that interested in learning--making pies looked difficult, anyway, and I didn't feel ready yet. So I left home for school without having tried my hand at making pie, and that was fine for the time being.
Butter pieces Dough discs for pie
But some occasions just call for pie, like when you and your friends have picked far more berries than you could possibly eat or when the stands at the farmers' market are groaning with fall apples. On occasions like these, I was certainly tempted, and eventually I did give in. But I was far from home at the time, and I didn't think that over-the-phone pie advice would work out particularly well, so I was more or less on my own. I can't quite remember that very first pie--whether it was strawberry-rhubarb or just rhubarb with orange zest--but I do know that it was a messy affair. I had trouble pulling together the pastry, and crimping together the top and bottom crusts had me stumped. But what was really disappointing was slicing into the baked pie, promising and golden, and seeing just how runny the filling still was. The bottom crust was a wet, pasty mess, and the fruit and its juices seeped out everywhere. I'm pretty sure that we ate our pie slices--if you could call them that--out of bowls that day.
Pitting cherries
Cherries in abundance
Since that first attempt, I've mostly left the pie-making to others. I've probably only made four or five more in the intervening years and not with much luck. Each one was, to one degree or another, soggy-bottomed. So I'm not quite sure why I was so determined to try again this past weekend with my parents visiting. I wasn't looking for family pie-wisdom--I shooed everyone out of the kitchen when I set to work. It probably had something to do with the sour cherries that started appearing at the farmers' market a couple of weekends ago. In her column, Melissa Clark once called sour cherries "the queen of all pie fruit," and though I'd never had sour cherry pie, the thought stuck with me. So, despite the heat and my terrible luck with making pies, I set about the business of pitting cherries and rolling out pastry dough.
I fretted all the way through, right up to cutting the first slice. But it held together. I gave it to my father, who has always appreciated a good slice of pie. After a bite or two, he turned to my mother and said, "Looks like you've got yourself some competition." Being my mother's daughter, I'm not sure that I should make that comparison. But I will say that it was a marvellously good pie, almost everything I could have wanted, with its crust buttery, crisp, and flaky beneath a lavish heap of tart cherries and their juices. (Though the best bites, I think, are the ones with a little bit of sugar-flecked top crust too.)
The pie cools First slice of sour cherry pie
I have Melissa Clark and her pie-wisdom to thank for that. Her sour cherry pie is twice-baked. Taking a page from open-faced pie tradition--think pumpkin, lemon meringue, or chocolate cream--she has you par-bake the bottom crust before adding the fruit and covering it. Though it does mean that you have to bear with the oven being on for a little longer, it is well worth it. And the sour cherry, that queen of all pie fruit--I'll second that, Ms. Clark--she deserves it.

Twice-baked Sour Cherry Pie
Adapted from Melissa Clark's A Good Appetite column in the NY Times
Note: About the tapioca. I had a bit of trouble grinding my instant tapioca into a fine powder, and as a result, some stubborn tapioca clinging to the cherries at the very top of the pie never quite dissolved during baking. I fixed this by nudging those cherries over into the filling right after pulling the pie out of the oven. By the time it was cool enough to cut into, the tapioca had dissolved into the hot filling. About the top crust. I don't think I cut out quite as many circles as I should have for the top crust--I didn't have the patience to chill the scraps and re-roll the dough. But when it came to eating, I wish I had. Sugar-flecked, flaky top crust is good stuff. I advise adding more than pictured above.

225 g / 1 3/4 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, more for rolling out dough
3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
210 g / 15 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
200 g / 1 cup sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons instant tapioca
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
900 g sour cherries (about 6 cups), rinsed and pitted
1 tablespoon kirsch or brandy
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Demerara sugar, for sprinkling

To make dough: in bowl of a food processor pulse together flour and salt just to combine. Add butter and pulse until chickpea-size pieces form. Add 3 to 6 tablespoons ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until mixture just comes together. Alternatively, cut the butter into the flour and salt by hand with a pastry blender, leaving the butter pieces the size of small peas. Add 3 to 6 tablespoons of ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture just comes together. Separate dough into 2 disks, one using 2/3 dough, the other using the remaining. Wrap disks in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour (and up to 3 days) before rolling out and baking.
Heat oven to 425 degrees F. Place larger dough disk on a lightly floured surface and roll into a 12-inch circle, about 3/8-inch thick. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Line dough with foil and weigh it down with pie weights. Bake until crust is light golden brown, about 30 minutes.
While pie crust is baking, prepare filling. In bowl of a food processor, combine sugar, tapioca and cinnamon (use more tapioca if you prefer a thicker, more solid filling, and less if you like a looser, juicier filling). Run the motor until tapioca is finely ground. Place cherries in a bowl and add sugar and tapioca mixture. Drizzle in kirsch or brandy and toss gently to combine. 
When pie crust is ready, transfer it to a wire rack to cool slightly and reduce heat to 375 degrees. Remove foil and weights. Scrape cherry filling into pie crust. 
Place smaller disk of dough on a lightly floured surface and roll it 3/8-inch thick. Use a round cookie cutter (or several round cookie cutters of different sizes) to cut out circles of dough. Arrange circles on top of cherry filling in a pattern of your choice. 
Brush top crust with cream and sprinkle generously with Demerara sugar. Bake until crust is dark golden brown and filling begins to bubble, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Transfer pie to a wire rack to cool for at least 2 hours, allowing filling to set before serving.
Serves 8.