Notes from a tree hugger

I don’t just hug trees. Sometimes when I stand at the base of a really gigantic one, amazed my arms can’t reach around it, I will stretch my neck and rest my chin and look up at its incredible height and think, “I am older than you.”

I was a tree hugger before I even knew it was a thing, way back around the first time it was politically incorrect to be so. This was back when people threw garbage out their car windows without a thought. Back when the world was huge and we were fewer, smaller, still in awe of her a little.

I fell for trees when I was about 11. I remember the day when I first realized leaves were visible from farther than five feet away. The doctor and my teacher and my parents had finally caught on to my severe nearsightedness. This was surely soon after I asked my beautiful, brilliant, and hugely pregnant sixth-grade teacher why she bothered to write on the board when nobody could see it. I figured everyone was listening intently like I was and memorizing and mentally cataloguing her lessons, even math. I was a bit outraged when I learned the others had the unfair advantage of being able to read and hear what she taught. Anyway, my mom took me to get glasses.

I was mortified.

My older sister had gotten glasses years earlier. Apparently she was more vocal about her needs. Her glasses were cat shaped. There was no way I would make that mistake.

So I chose a green speckled pair. Round. Awful shape for my round face and eyes. Nobody mentioned it, except my only brother who almost died at my hands after he mumbled something about four eyes and his favorite red-button-pushing nickname for me that he hissed: lizard.

Those spectacles likely did make me look amphibian. Looking through them, though, showed me the world for the first time, clearly. Not a blur. I could see people’s eyes. I could tell when they were looking at me and when they were speaking to me. I could see someone wave from across the street and I wondered how many hundreds of friends I might have had in my decade on earth if I’d ever known to wave back.

But let me get back to my trees.

They have pine needles, aptly named and clustered.

They have bark, thick and ragged.

New green leaves in the spring are a fresh pale version of the deep green of summer. (My speckled spectacles had those hues and more.)

When the sun shines behind a sorority of beauties, their blackness strikes me down.

Now, as a scientist, I understand the balance of the existence of humans on a planet with trees. I read a book by Hope Jahren last year called Lab Girl and fell hard once again for trees from a loving botanist’s perspective. Now I live out of the city surrounded by trees. The air is clean. The shade is cool. The birds are happy (they sing, so I’m sure of it.)

And I can take a walk while looking up at the canopy. I can stand under a beauty and feel her steady photosynthesis inside the green leaves I can see.

How can you not hug that?

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Pie 4.0: ready, set, bake!

Pie 4.0: ready, set, bake!

Ready, set, bake!

Cue the music.

This is what I hear in my imagination as I walk down the green grassy hill in my apron to face Paul and Mary. Then I snap out of IT and sing my chorus songs while I bake alone in my kitchen.

For this week’s challenge, I turned to page 45 of the SUGAR BUTTER FLOUR cookbook and found Candy Gold Apple Pie. The time had come; no more crumbly cookie pressed crusts. This pie demanded a true handmade and rolled cold-butter crust called a blind-baked pie shell.

As I am a side-of-the-Crisco-can recipe baker, I have always made the standard Crisco pie crust for my famous and trusty dusty apple pie. According to the detailed directions for the SBF-BB pie shell (try to keep up), I have been doing it all wrong for decades.

One of the first tips for the BB pie shell is to make two, even if you only need one today. The extra batch can be wrapped and frozen for the next pie. Somehow, a non-baker who strolled through my kitchen at just the wrong moment talked me out of this. I can’t really blame my number 1 pie eater for this small contribution, but it turned out to be a critical wrong turn in a day of uncontrolled heat, so I feel I must mention it.

So a blind-baked pie shell does not mean pull the hairnet down over your eyes and just don’t look. It means one must bake it sans filling. I can’t imagine how empty and blind have the same meaning in baking (in rural Somethingshire, perhaps) but the concept makes sense. Mary’s voice chimed in my head as though her blue eyes were piercing my brown ones, “One must avoid a soggy bottom, Laura.”

The dreaded soggy bottom. I committed to following the directions to the letter.

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The butter was cut and chilled. The flour and salt and sugar got a quick sift. Liquid ice (aka water) dripped in by the teaspoon. I only used my fingertips to bring the dough together into a ball because the book says my palms are too hot. Ha.

 

It was lookin’ good and I was ready to roll. Until I saw this.

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Rolling postponed. Into the fridge to chill. (The pie dough. I did not chill one bit during these 4 hours of my life. You’ll see.)

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I love to peel apples in one long curl. This pie demanded golden delicious apples to be precooked for quite a while on the stove. Hazelnuts and cinnamon and brown sugar were added. The mixture bubbled on the stove and the kitchen smelled like yum.

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Back to the lone pie crust: I only left it in the fridge for about an hour, instead of three. I thought of Nadia and all the bakes when she had to rush and it all worked out in the end. The music played in my head. Onward. I rolled out the dough on wax paper and did my choreographed lift and flip onto the pan.

 

 

This was going great! I made the edges pretty and turned to pop it in the oven. But the temperature was off.

I poked some buttons and sighed and thought and thought and looked and the problem was the units. Somehow my oven was set to Celsius. How British is that!? Well, I can do math so I was sure the temperature was correct, but the C shook me up. That’s when I checked the directions again and realized I had to cover the shell in foil and add rice (or beans, or ceramic blind baking pie shell balls). Fixed it up and popped it in. Fingers crossed.

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For the crumbly topping, I made what seemed like an oatmeal cookie with rolled oats and butter and more hazelnuts. It was to be baked on parchment paper, cooled, and crumbled. Did you know wax paper is not the same as parchment paper? The edges baked too fast. The center was soft. I hacked at it with a spoon, pre-crumbled, and scraped it off the smoking wax paper. Back into the oven for quite a while. I worried about the temperature. The oatmeal cookie aroma swirled with the bubbling apple aroma, but mingled with smoky wax paper.

 

 

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By now the pie shell had finished. I set it to cool on the stove.

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This pie took a loooong time to make. Unlike my first three pies, I got a little distracted. I did wear my hairnet, and I did sing a bit, but I also answered the phone, made lunch plans, and left the kitchen (where all three components were firmly instructed to be quiet and still and just wait for a minute) to take a shower.

At some point during the distracted minutes (and they were only minutes, maybe 10 of them) a new smell emerged.

Something was burning.

But that didn’t make sense. The pesky Celsius oven was off. The caramelized apples were chilling in the fridge. Oatmeal cookie crumbs covered every surface except in the oven. My gorgeous pie shell waited patiently on the stove.

With smoke coming out of the fork prong holes. Almost on fire.

I’d left the burner below still on from the apple-cooking stage. For new bakers and chemists, let me explain the phenomenal disaster occurring in my kitchen, the drama forewarned by the oddly Celsius oven: Cooling is an exothermic process where the system (the pie shell, in this case) releases heat to the surroundings. My beautiful pie shell endured an endothermic process when the surroundings included the flame of combusting methane. As the system (pie shell) absorbed energy, it could not cool. Yikes.

Have you ever scraped the char off a piece of burnt toast because that was the last piece of bread, or perhaps you are Irish like me and can’t throw out a piece of good bread? No? Really? You haven’t? You must have a great toaster. Anyway, the process, unpublished in any cookbook, goes like this: hold blackened bread over a sink and subject it to rapid short-stroke scraping with a serrated steak knife.

That’s what I did to the black bottom of my beautiful pie crust. The crust that did not have a twin because I did not make the suggested back-up batch.

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By now I was late for my lunch date. I texted my friend and persevered, the small not-Mary voice in my head saying, “Ah, bullocks. I mean que sera sera. Pie 4.0 falls in the coconut-pie category. It has nuts (and oatmeal), so I’m not gonna eat it. I can at least make it pretty on the top for the pictures for the blog post. Those readers don’t have to know it’s burnt to hell on the bottom.”

Not at my best, I agree, but I was sweating (and swearing) and still had to brush my hair and teeth before I left for lunch. And did I mention we were having a yard sale that morning and I was involved in the sale of a knee board, a God Bless America sign, and a treadmill all while baking? And I was worn out from writing exams? I have more excuses than grains of rice in a BB-PS.

Minimal assembly was required, including a sweet and lemony drizzle on top.

 

Here she is.

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My dear husband scarfed it up despite the burn. (He’s a little desperate since I teach 100+ miles away each week of the semester and he has to fend (“cook”) for himself.)

And the next morning I fixed the oven temperature unit. I also baked brownies to convince myself I could still bake something. And a few days later, the universe reminded me to write this blog post when my hair drier threw a white spark across the bathroom and sent a curl of smoke to the ceiling, all before my second cup of caffeine–I mean coffee.

Today I will bake homemade bread from a memorized recipe so I can eat the first steaming piece slathered in butter and have a good smell in my kitchen.

Thanks for following me on my pie journey. Next up will be a maraschino-cherried chocolate mousse on a shortbread cookie crumb crust. *sigh*

Pie 3.0

Pie 3.0

My pie is a cheesecake! What a fraud. Reminds me of that dogwood tree that was really a cherry tree, but was later replaced by a birch. (Click here if you really want to go down that wormhole.)

What’s with this cake stigma? Maybe Pie 3.0 had to impersonate a pie to get into this cookbook. Or perhaps the precedent set by the famous Boston Cream Pie brought this on. If the Boston Cream can be a cake but called a pie, my Pie 3.0 can too.

In her defense, Pie 3.0 is beautiful. Well, she was. But you wouldn’t believe it: she was gone in an instant. Luckily I have proof of her existence, and her beauty.

I did wear my hairnet. This Pie had a date at a party, so I couldn’t risk a hair (and the hostess requested no hair. Some people.)

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The crust was crushed chocolate wafers. I couldn’t find any (and thought licking the filling out of two dozen Oreos would be gross) so I used these. I’ve made three pies so far and haven’t baked a real pie crust. They’ve all been crushed cookies (Meyer lemon, Nilla wafers, and these chocolate things) all mixed with butter, pressed in the pan, baked for ten minutes and cooled. Easy peasy.

 

There was a LOT of chocolate to chop and melt and mix and swirl.

 

The cream cheese warmed to room temperature by sunbathing by the window.

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Some chocolate had to be remelted. I made notes in the book to reverse steps 2 and 3 next time.

 

Some assembly was required.

 

I doubted the directions and thought I’d swirl with a stick, but they were right–the end of a spoon worked better to scoop down and up while swirling. Here she is.

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Tomorrow morning: Pie 4.0. Another beauty, but with a real pie crust. I get to eat it, and you get to look at pictures. Fair enough.

 

Pie 2.0

Pie 2.0

As I continue my journey through SUGAR BUTTER FLOUR: THE WAITRESS PIE BOOK, this week’s pie is from page 114, “Old Joe’s Slice of Heaven Pie.” She’s a beauty. Follow along to enjoy pictures and my random and deep thoughts while baking.

First, I should confess I made this pie without a net (hairnet) because I forgot it. My sources report there is only one slice left of Pie 2.0, which had to travel almost 400 miles to be eaten. No complaints of stray hairs have come to my attention. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Still have shoulders up and breath held until I receive confirmed hair-free consumption of that last piece, though.

Now I shall geek out on pie math.

Let’s say a pie is made of 3 layers: crust, filling, and topping. If we let these 3 layers sum to 4 parts (so they are not 1:1:1), I may compare them quantitatively to my previous pie experiences. My own pie recipes often have these layers in 1:2:1 or even 1:3:0 ratios. In my “Butter Sugar Flour” cookbook, many of the pie designs are in a 1:1:2 ratio. The crust is well planned and not always thin. The topping is often (intended to be) twice the volume of the filling. And that topping can be glorious (see Pie 1.0).

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I made Pie 2.0 for my best friend. He likes coconut. I do not. I always taste it, though, to see whether my opinion has changed but it never does. Dislike of coconut comes in two varieties: don’t like the texture vs don’t like the taste. During the concoction of Pie 2.0, I tested both. The custard called for a tiny hit of coconut extract. So I tasted the creamy custard before I dumped in the pile o’ coconut. Yuck. And then I put a few flakes o’ coconut on my tongue, let my teeth have at it, and had to spit it in the trash. Yuck. But, whatev. Best friend declared disgust (and didn’t try) Pie 1.0 because he so despises lemon. So, there’s that.

For Pie 2.0 the pie shell is made from crushed Nilla wafers. Good so far.

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The custard is cooked in a pan with a whisk while pouring in a thin and steady stream of hot milk. Then it is pushed through a fine mesh sieve (to remove something lumpy, I guess). I searched my kitchen for something sieve-like and found two candidates. One is my bacon splatter cover and I didn’t want the custard to taste like bacon (though that would be better than tasting like coconut) so I used my flour sifter instead. This step seemed silly since I was going to add loads of coconut.

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The custard must cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. It is so temperamental it needs a wax paper shield to stop it from skinning. Ick. In this picture you can see I forgot to add the coconut. I had to uncover, dump, stir, recover. Exhausting is the baking process. ‘Specially without a net.

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In making the topping, I learned the difference between whipped cream and butter cream frosting: about 12 seconds. They are both made from whipping heavy cream, but I should have stopped before I did, because I watched the cream turned nice and fluffy (“whipped”) right before it turned buttery (whoops). Oh well. I wasn’t going to eat it. And the next step insisted I cover the mound with tons of coconut, so nobody noticed.

I’ve already planned Pie 3.0. Purchased the delicious ingredients and, since I will help eat it, I’ll even wear a hairnet. It’ll be chocolate and pretty if I don’t mess it up. Stay tuned.

 

 

Pie 1.0

Pie 1.0

My daughter, mother, and grandchildren all love the Great British Baking Show. I started watching and I’m hooked. I love Nadia. I love their accents. I love to bake. I love saying “soggy bottom” with my molars clenched and my lips pursed.

When I dragged my husband to see The Waitress on Broadway I sang along. I know all the words to all the songs. Some of them make me cry. Only the man behind me was annoyed by my karaoke. He didn’t kick my seat too much.

For my birthday, my daughter gave me the Sugar Butter Flour Waitress Pie cookbook. I read it like a novel. I’ve decided I will make all the pies. One a week whenever possible. I’ll eat only lettuce until all the pies are consumed.

The book has recipes for many dozens of pies. I have not counted, and I will not make them in order. For my first concoction, I attempted my favorite pie in the whole wide world: “Where there’s a whisk, there’s a way” aka a lemon meringue pie. It’s on page 121 in the book, which is a perfect square—the product of two elevens (my favorite number)—so it was a simple choice.

I went to stupid market number 1, expecting to have to also go to number 2, and maybe number 3. I was happy to find everything I needed for my first pie in market number 1. They had Meyer lemons and Meyer lemon cookies. I was shocked by my luck. I’m not a lucky person. I worried I had squandered my meager reserves of luck and the meringue might suffer. When one worry is quelled, I can always find another.

I walked up and down the baking aisle a dozen times. Nobody asked if I needed help finding something. And I didn’t ask, even though I was desperately tired after a two-hour drive, and I had to pee. (Sorry. Being cold or having to pee seriously ruins the inherent pleasure of grocery shopping for me.) Those challenges were compounded by bone dry contact lenses that kept me from being able to read labels.

That baking aisle almost canceled my pie plans. I could not find cream of tartar. It’s a white powder, as are so many baking ingredients like flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder, and corn starch. So I looked with my dry, squinting eyes very carefully in the vicinity of each of those things. At the end of the aisle, a man with a cart was on the phone with his wife and complaining he couldn’t pick out something on the list she’d sent. His cart and body blocked the spices, but it didn’t make sense for the tartar de crème to be in the spices, so I didn’t stink eye him out of my way. I just kept looking at everything else. Finally I left that aisle and went to check in the cereal aisle, and then near the coffee and pancake mix. All the while I clenched my legs and squinted my eyes, and tried not to scrap my pretty pie plan.

I stalked a couple of workers. I considered asking for help. One of them looked like she knew where the C.O.T. was hidden. I couldn’t do it. My dad worked in retail and hated when customers bothered him while he worked. How hard is it to find the peanut butter without asking? There are signs for Christ sake.

So I Googled “where is the cream of tartar in BiLo” and Google suggested I search in the baking aisle, in the spice rack, alphabetically in the Cs. Google was correct. I found it, waited in the checkout line, bought it, drove fifteen more minutes, unloaded the car, peed, removed contact lenses, and went to bed.

The next morning I made a mess in my kitchen. I baked for hours in my red apron and a hairnet.

I crushed cookies, separated eggs, grated lemon rind, squeezed lemon juice, whisked, added sugar 1 tablespoon as a time, and left the light on in the oven so I could watch over an hour of baking. Here are some highlights.

I made the crumb crust. Next time I’ll pulverize the Meyer lemon cookies.

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I grated the lemon rind. First time in my whole life.

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I made and baked the lemon layer. Yes, I licked the bowl.

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I started the meringue. The recipe called for six egg whites, but I dripped some yolk in after three eggs and had to start again. New process: separate whites into small bowl and then dump from there to the big red bowl once the yolk is safely in another bowl.

And after three hours, I had to clean up this mess.

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The final pie was lovely and tasted like heaven.

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There is one slice left in the fridge. When that is gone I’ll start Pie 2.0.