Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mmm pie

Ever since...ever, I've had a strong predilection for bread and sweets. I've also leaned heavily towards gaining weight easily, so that has not worked in my favor. I can look at a slice of cake and gain five pounds, but if I look at a treadmill I just get tired.

About a couple of years ago I decided that I needed a new hobby. I came up with baking. Of course, of all the things I could have picked -- rock climbing, marathon running, kickball -- I ended up filling my house with things that can squeeze me out of my jeans by sight alone. I did it because I had a feeling that I could be good at it, and I needed that kind of boost. Baking involves following instructions exactly and being precise, and I'm the kind of person who has fun putting together furniture.

I found that I actually am pretty decent at it, which has been pretty cool. What I didn't expect, though, was just how intensely frustrating a process baking can be. Even a couple of years later, I can look at a recipe and go, "No sweat! I'll push out these cookies easy", then 2 hours later find myself telling cookie dough to &^$^ its &*$% with a @#^.

So this weekend I decided that I'd up the ante from making cookies and bread. I would make a pie - only the second one I have ever attempted to make. The first one was an apple pie, this one would be cherry. I admit that while the first one was 100% homemade, for this one I used pre-made filling. But it was really good! And to be honest, it's not the filling that gives me pause -- it's the crust. Flaky and golden, with a sprinkling of sugar just before baking. That, in fact, is what I think is the hard part.

Much like with making bread dough, pie crust is an exercise in patience. You can follow the recipe but external factors can be game-changers. If the weather is cold and dry that day, your dough will reflect that. You'll then have to adjust on the fly until you feel the dough become what you want it to be. But a novice like me doesn't always know what she wants out of dough, and an inpatient one (ahem) doesn't want to accept that some attempts may yield bad results. I mean, that stuff takes time and energy!

This time my pie dough did suffer from being too dry. As I tried to roll it, it would stick to the rolling pin and get all cracked and crumbly. I didn't yell at it but I did give it what-for. Eventually I decided that it had become too warm to work with, not to mention abused by my rolling attempts, so I put it back in the fridge to re-chill.

I brought it back, added a bit more ice water, and started again. This time, yes. This time, the dough gave itself up easily. Like Romeo to Juliet, like Bacall to Bogart. Like Madonna to any number of people. I rolled it out into to almost-circular crusts (don't judge me, I'm still not good at that) and gently draped the first one on the pie plate. The chunks of butter that would melt during baking and help create those beautiful flaky layers were still there; I was afraid all my rolling killed them.

I assembled the rest, brushed it with egg white, sprinkled some sugar on the top crust, and into the oven.

My technique still needs some work, but this was a really good second attempt. That bald spot in the lower right of the pie is from a chunk of crust sticking to the foil I wrapped around the edges to keep them from burning. It is not, I must state emphatically, because I chomped away at it. That would be crass.

Even though they are different, there's something about bread and pie doughs that is really satisfying (once they come together). Kneading dough at first can make me a bit panicky, because it can be a little sticky. I immediately convince myself that I have botched it, that it will not come together and that it hates my guts. But if I stick with it, I can feel it start to change in my hands. It starts to give way and doesn't stick to my hands or the work surface. Then after a few minutes of gentle compliance, that thing comes alive. It expands a bit, gets firm and pliable. It is so satisfying not just to know that I made it happen, but that my hands felt it happen every step of the way. With pie dough, the real metamorphosis happens under the rolling pin, but after battling with it and begging it to comply, bringing it treats like ice water or flour in order to coax it out, and watching it relax under steady, confident rolling is pretty cool. I mean, panic and Spanish obscenities were also involved but they either didn't hurt, or they actually helped. I'm not sure yet.

But, really, as great as that all is, eating that pie is even better. Let's not fool ourselves.