Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Many People's Mom's Apple Cake

It turns out that what I do in the fall is make apple cake. When I realize I've been overenthusiastic about buying apples from the farmer's market, I make apple cake.

When a freak October snowstorm covers the driveway with branches and causes the power to be out for 5 days, I make apple cake. (With the assistance of my tenant, who baked it in his oven since mine--with its electric starter--was out of commission.)

When four young women who are on the Smith College crew team come to my house as part of their "rent-a-rower" fundraiser and move nearly 2 cords of wood onto my porch in 2 hours, I make apple cake.

But really, it's not like I need much of an excuse. If there are apples, I'll make apple cake. And I'm writing this now in the hopes that you will too.

I discovered this recipe last fall on Smitten Kitchen. Deb called it "Mom's Apple Cake" because it was one of her mother's specialties. As it turns out, if you read the hundreds of comments that followed, lots of people's moms made this cake.

There is a reason for that--it's delicious. Also, easy to make and large enough to feed a crowd. The other thing that's nice is that it's forgiving. Each time I make it--either accidentally or on purpose--I tweak it a bit. I swap out the orange juice for apple cider. I use some whole wheat pastry flour instead of white. Maybe I'll cut down the sugar or the oil a bit--or maybe I won't. And each time, it's delicious. The apple to cake ratio is almost even, and the cake crumbles around the apples--or perhaps it's the apples melting into the cake--in a most delightful way. I've brought this cake to parties and to work, I've fed those hardworking Smith students with it as well as my companions in the dark of the freak snowstorm. No matter the circumstances, it is welcome.

One note about baking. The original recipe calls for a tube pan. I didn't have one so the first few times I made the cake, I made it in a 9" by 13" pan instead. This works fine, for the most part. The cake is best when the cake and apples are layered, and that's a bit trickier in the sheet pan, just because it takes most of the batter to cover the bottom of the pan. Still, it's worth it to try to layer, even if you put 2/3 of the batter down and then 2/3 of the apples, then top with the remaining 1/3 of each.

This past weekend, on a bit of a whim, I purchased a tube pan. Except I didn't get the 2-parted tube pan that lets you make the cake right-side up but a one piece tube pan that you have to turn over. Using a pan with a smaller surface area meant that the layering was much easier, and the apples and walnuts were nicely integrated into the cake.

And the bottom of the cake, upon its exit from the oven, was quite lovely:

It did not, alas, come out of the pan clean, even though I had assiduously buttered and floured it. This is what it looked like after I attempted to patch up the bare spots. Still, that it was not beautiful (or whole) did not mean that it was not still delicious.

I know it is nearly Thanksgiving and everyone's cooking focus is on pie and stuffing, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. Even so, I hope that there might still be an occasion where a cake like this--sturdy, tasty, seasonal--can find a place at the table.

Many People's Mom's Apple Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

6 apples, MacIntosh, or a mix
1 tablespoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar

2 3/4 cups flour, sifted (Can swap out some of the white for whole wheat pastry flour)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil (If you cut down on the oil, add more juice or cider to make up for the liquid.)
2 cups sugar (Can go down to 1 3/4 cups; you can also swap out 1/2 cup of the white for brown)
1/4 cup orange juice or apple cider
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs
1 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a tube pan or a 9 x 13 sheet pan. Peel, core and chop apples into chunks. Toss with cinnamon and sugar and set aside.

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, orange juice or cider, sugar and vanilla. Mix wet ingredients into the dry ones, then add eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.

Pour half of batter into prepared pan. Spread half of apples over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a tester comes out clean.

Baking Note: Keep an eye on the timer. I'd recommend starting to check after an hour. If you're making it in a 9 x 13 pan, it will probably only need an hour to an hour and 15 minutes to bake. In my tube pan (which is heavy), it baked in an hour and 20 minutes.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Audiobook Recommendation: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

You don't have to look far to find fabulously positive reviews of David Mitchell's 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. (If you buy the paperback edition, they're all over the cover and take up the first several pages of text.) The Guardian loved it, as did the New York Times (twice) and nearly every other major paper. The review that interested me most, though, was a very brief one, in AudioFile magazine, about the audiobook version. The first sentence is as follows: "This utterly original and wildly satisfying new novel gets such a dazzling performance here that you are torn between wanting to know how it ends and hoping it never does."

Well, I was intrigued! As it happens, I already owned a copy of Jacob de Zoet, thanks to my friend Derick, who sent me a copy earlier this summer. He'd borrowed Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten, years ago, and when he was housesitting here in January, he read what is supposed to be Mitchell's masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. My own history with Mitchell is mixed. I enjoyed Ghostwritten (read on the train from Varanasi to Delhi in 2002) but never made it through the first section of Cloud Atlas. I am determined to be more patient and try it again, though, especially after Jacob de Zoet (which, apparently in some circles, is considered lesser Mitchell.)

There are many other places to read about the plot and themes of this novel. The thumbnail version is that it's set at the turn of the 19th Century in Japan, where the tiny island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki is the only point of contact between Shogun Japan and the rest of the world. Dejima serves as a trading outpost between the Dutch East India Company and Japan, and the Dutch merchants who live there are confined to the island. Enter Jacob de Zoet, a pious and upright young clerk, come to make his fortune so he can return home and marry his sweetheart. At first, Jacob is prized for his honesty, and then not so much. Betrayed by the Chief Resident who at first welcomes his attempts to straighten out years of corrupt dealings, then rejects them when he begins to enjoy the fruits of corruption himself, Jacob is left on Dejima when the chief leaves, demoted and seemingly destined to serve as the whipping post for the weaselly colleague who was promoted above him. But during his time in Dejima, Jacob has fallen rather hopelessly in love with Aibagawa Orito, a midwife given special dispensation to study on Dejima with the Dutch Dr. Marinus. Orito is bright and talented but disfigured by a burn to her cheek, making her seemingly unmarriageable.

In the second section of the book, Jacob is nearly absent, as the focus shifts to a sinister mountain shrine/nunnery where Orito has been brought (against her will) after her father's death. The narration of the story shifts between an attempt to rescue Orito and life in the house of sisters at the shrine.

The third section of the book returns to Dejima but also to the British frigate Phoebus and to its gouty, mourning captain. (It was at this point that I felt like I'd been flung, briefly and happily, into a cousin of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels.)

My temptation is to natter happily on about the plot, but that's not the point of this. I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed reading the book version, but I loved listening to the audio book version. Fat historical novels, when narrated well, turn out to be intensely pleasurable as audio books. The length and breadth mean that you can settle into the story in a different way. I learned that with the Patrick O'Brian books and again with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Both Patrick Tull (Patrick O'Brian) and Simon Prebble ( Jonathan Strange) are wonderful narrators, and Jonathan Aris, much younger than either, is a fabulous successor to them. I will not quibble that all the Dutch residents have (various) British accents. That the accents are so well done and the narration so seamless is enough. Paula Wilcox narrates Orito's sections, also very, very well.

The book started a bit slowly (for me), and it takes some time to learn the lay of the land, with the plethora of characters--Dutch and Japanese both--to become familiar with. But I felt that I was in good hands with both narrators, and as the book progressed and the plot thickened, it became hard to stop listening. I handed the CDs off to my friend Darnell once I was done, and soon thereafter, I received an email from his wife, my friend Leanna, which said the following: "D was so taken up with finishing Jacob DeZ that he refused all conversation last night and retreated to his chair, where he sat with headphone clamped on, absolutely rapt."

I'm not sure that there's higher praise than that. As for me, it's been weeks since I finished, and I still find myself thinking about it. I think of the plot twists, but I also think of the melancholy but satisfying final pages when Mitchell wraps up his story in the only way the novel reasonably could have ended. I spent 19 hours listening to Jonathan Aris and Paula Wilcox tell me the story of Jacob de Zoet and Aibagawa Orito and the rest, and it still wasn't quite enough. Better, of course, to end wanting more, but a bit sad all the same.

For more on Jacob DeZoet and on David Mitchell, here are a few links:

An article about Mitchell in the New York Times Magazine shortly before Jacob de Zoet came out.

This review in The Millions was one of my favorites.

The Written Nerd is a new blog to me (and one, it turns out that is now defunct), but I quite enjoyed her review as well.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Amanda Hesser's Peach Tart

It had to be a pretty amazing recipe to get me out of my blog funk, but this one did it. Behold the peach tart, both gorgeous and delicious.

When I bought 2 boxes ($4 worth) of peach seconds at the Farmers' Market last Saturday, I was thinking peach jam or perhaps a crumble. I definitely wasn't thinking about a tart, as I had never actually made a fruit tart before. But I'd noticed up at Food52 that in the contest between this tart and another, this one had won by a landslide, and I got curious. Then I started reading the overwhelmingly positive comments, and then I looked closely at the recipe--the olive oil dough that didn't need to be rolled out, the peaches that didn't need to be peeled, the need for no special equipment. It seemed just the thing to try on a chilly Sunday evening (with the added bonus of the oven being on to warm the kitchen up).

The problem turned out to be the peaches, which, oddly for seconds, weren't quite ripe. By the time I realized that, though, I was attached to the idea of a peach tart and so I gave up the week's eating peaches for the tart. A lesson learned--your peach tart is as good as the peaches you put in it. I'm sure a tart with the seconds would have been fine, but the tart using the better peaches was divine.

The recipe is both easy and unusual. The dough is slightly sweet and slightly salty, the fat provided by a mix of canola and olive oils. There are also 2 tbsp. of milk in there and some almond extract. It looked weird when I first put them in the bowl together (no photo, alas), but they whisked up into a thick, glossy liquid. The dough itself seemed a bit oily, and I was nervous as I pressed it into the pan and covered it with sliced peaches (unpeeled! no blanching!). The topping is a mix of sugar, flour and butter. Amanda Hesser noted that it would seem like a lot of topping, and, indeed, it seemed like a lot of topping.

But in the 35 minutes the tart spent in the oven, the topping melted and turned into a sweet, glossy sheen on top of the peaches. When I looked into the oven the first time, I couldn't believe that I--a person who is accustomed to making baked goods that are tasty but homely--had produced such a gorgeous tart.

I had no whipped cream to serve it with, but Alex and I ate it in silence. Silently, we appreciated the crisp, almond-tinged crust, the soft and just sweet enough peaches, the chewy caramelized bits at the edge of the tart. Until I began to complement my own cooking, and Alex went back into the kitchen and asked if I wanted anymore or could he finish it off. (He didn't really.) Still I was given a stern warning: "Don't bring the rest of this to work!" he said. Point taken.

I am hoping devoutly that there will be at least one more week of peaches, and if there are, I will make this again, perhaps with whipped cream this time. But now that I know how easy this is, I am looking forward to using this tart formula for other kinds of fruit--apples, perhaps, or plums, and in the summer, some kind of peach-berry combination. As Amanda Hesser says in her introduction to this recipe on Food 52, "Every cook needs a good dessert recipe that can be whipped up anywhere." I think this one has just become mine.

Amanda Hesser's Peach Tart
from Food 52

  1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a mixing bowl, stir together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. In a small bowl, whisk together the oils, milk and almond extract. Pour the oil mixture into the flour mixture and mix gently with a fork, just enough to dampen; do not over work it. Then, transfer the dough to an 11-inch tart pan (or whatever similar pan you have on hand), and use your hands to pat out the dough so it covers the bottom of the pan, pushing it up the sides to meet the edge. (Mine didn't go very far up the sides, but I sacrificed that so it wouldn't have holes in the bottom. Hesser says the dough should be 1/8 inch thick.)
  2. In a bowl, combine 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the butter. (Add an additional tbsp. of flour if you have especially juicy peaches.) Pinch the butter into the dry ingredients until crumbly.
  3. Starting on the outside, arrange the peaches overlapping in a concentric circle over the pastry; fill in the center in whatever pattern makes sense. The peaches should fit snugly. Sprinkle the pebbly butter mixture over top (it will seem like a lot). Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until shiny, thick bubbles begin enveloping the fruit and the crust is slightly brown. Cool on a rack. Serve warm or room temperature, preferably with generous dollops of whipped cream

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday Review: Claire Dederer's Poser

I realize that it may not be fair to begin a post about Claire Dederer's memoir Poser by talking about Elizabeth Gilbert, but so be it. That's what I'm going to do. And I'm not the first person to have done so. Janet Maslin, for one, talks about Eat, Pray, Love in her daily NY Times review of Poser, as do Judith Shulevitz and Emily Bazelon in their interesting conversation about Poser over at Slate. Poser has a prominent blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert on its back cover, and it is the only blurb on the home page of Dederer's website. (The short version--Gilbert loved the book.)

So, Gilbert. Last fall, I had a somewhat ridiculous conversation with friends in which one of them wondered aloud whether Eat, Pray, Love was the worst book ever written. I was incredulous. Because really, if you think Eat, Pray, Love is the worst book ever written, you haven't read nearly enough bad books. I am the first to admit, I liked Eat, Pray, Love, and I don't think it's a bad book at all. I read it soon after it was published; I bought it in hardcover, in fact. I was interested in the India section, of course, but I'd read Elizabeth Gilbert's work previously and knew she could write. Maybe I liked it because I read it before it became a cultural phenomenon, but mostly I liked it because Gilbert is a very good writer. I found her a witty and self-deprecating narrator, and what remains with me, four or five years later, are her meditations on what it means when you make choices that take you out of the mainstream. Gilbert may now be a married, world-famous gazillionaire, but she wasn't when she wrote this book. The crisis precipitating Gilbert's year-long journey was the breakup of her first marriage, in part because she didn't want children. Whatever you think of her pasta-eating in Italy, meditating in India and finding love in Bali, she remains a clear observer of her own life, and there are things to take from it. At least there were for me. Here is Gilbert thinking of the difference between her own life choices and her sister's.

Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword.’ On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where ‘all is correct.’ But on the other side of that sword, if you’re crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, ‘all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.’ Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous.

In Dederer's book, the person who chooses to cross the shadow of the sword is not Dederer--who is married and the mother of a baby daughter when the book opens--but her mother, who, at the age of 32, when Dederer was 6 and her brother 8, took up with a hippie named Larry . . . while continuing to remain married to Dederer's father. Dederer's mother moved in with Larry, mostly taking the kids with her, while simultaneously trying to pretend that nothing had really changed, as evidenced by the fact that the parents were still married. When the book opens, Dederer's brother Dave, now a doting father and husband himself, wants nothing more than for his parents to divorce already. "He sent middle-of-the-night e-mail pleas to my parents, on which he CC'ed me. . . . 'It's time for a divorce,' he would write. Or, 'My birthday is coming. For my gift I would like a divorce.'"

Poser is structured, as the subtitle indicates, around Dederer's study of yoga, which begins when she throws her back out when her daughter is a baby. That each chapter is named for a yoga pose and uses that pose as a means to explore her life could have been a gimmick, but in this book, it's not. And honestly, I don't have a problem with finding a structure on which to hang your memoir. Writing a memoir is a hard enough task--figuring out a way to tell the stories you want to tell is a challenge, and if yoga poses work as your unifying structure, that's fine with me.

Poser follows Dederer from yoga class to yoga class, and backwards and forwards in her own life. In response to both her own childhood and to the expectations of the liberal Seattle circles in which she travels, she decides that the way that she will approach motherhood is by being perfect. And not only perfect but also good. As you might imagine, this doesn't work all that well or make her particularly happy. It frays her marriage and leaves her constantly anxious. As Poser moves along, we see Dederer have a second child, move to Boulder and back to Washington state and go through multiple forms of yoga. What Dederer has in common with Elizabeth Gilbert is her self-deprecating sense of humor and her willingness not to let herself off the hook. She is good company, and it's hard not to root for her--not just in her attempts to do handstands and complicated yoga sequences--but in her life as a writer, mother and wife.

I am of Dederer's demographic (born a year earlier) but not a parent or a yoga doer, despite all the time I've spent in the land of yoga. Still, Dederer's voice is one that is familiar to me, and it's one I enjoyed spending time with. Judith Warner may gripe in the New York Times magazine about Poser being part of the "burgeoning literature of postboomer-female midlife crisis," but I think she's just being churlish. Sure, I'd be glad to read Dederer on any number of subjects, but in Poser, she does a fine job of turning her critic's eye on herself, and for me, that made for a very good read.

(For a good interview with Dederer, see this blog post. I knew I liked Dederer when she mentions E.F. Benson's Lucia books in Poser. I liked her even more when she said that Laurie Colwin was her favorite writer.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

July Recipe Roundup

Today, I did something I don't usually do, which is make two different but related meals for lunch and for dinner. It was mostly because I was home with time to cook and because I spent about $30 on vegetables at the farmers' market on Saturday and was determined to use at least some of them before they'd been languishing in the fridge for too long.

I've written about both of these recipes before, but they are both so good and so perfect for the season, that I wanted to put them in the spotlight again.

The first dish--my lunch, as it were--is early summer orzo, a recipe I mostly made up. It's a mix of vegetables diced into tiny pieces, sauteed in olive oil and then combined with a minimal amount of orzo. I usually make it in the sweet spot of early summer, when both peas and corn are available. I combine these with summer squash, onions, garlic, basil and toasted pine nuts. The key is to have everything cut the same size (i.e., the size of a pea or corn kernel or pine nut or piece of orzo) so that each bite has a little bit of everything in it. The other key is to add the orzo to the vegetables rather than the other way around--this way, the orzo is incorporated into the vegetables rather than the vegetables serving as a complement to the pasta. You could make this with many different vegetable combinations, but I'm partial to the early summer one. Then again, I was amazed that shell peas were still available on Saturday, and I can't imagine we'll see too many more of them after this week's mini heat wave, so I can see making this pea-less, out of necessity. Sprinkle some Parmesan if you like, and you're set for lunch, dinner or a snack. It is equally delicious re-heated.

Here's the recipe, from June 2009: Early Summer Orzo

The second recipe comes from a Mark Bittman "Minimalist" column from the summer of 2004, his Pasta with Corn, Zucchini and Tomatoes. I have been making this dish every summer since then, which I think is the definition of a keeper. So, in the early evening, after I'd come inside sweaty and grubby from mowing the lawn and watering the garden, I found myself, once again, chopping onions and garlic, dicing squash and cutting corn off of the cob. And the sauteing starts off the same way. The key difference here is the tomatoes. Tomatoes wouldn't work in the first recipe because they fall apart, and there, you're looking for intact bits. With this recipe, soupy is fine. You add the tomatoes around the time you put the water for the pasta in, and by the time the pasta is cooked, the tomatoes have broken down, and you have a delicious smelling pan of vegetables on the stove, waiting to be dumped upon the hot pasta. This dish might not be quite as pretty as the other one, but it's equally delicious.

Here's the recipe, from July 2008: Pasta with Corn, Zucchini and Tomatoes

Now, I have two different kinds of leftovers to eat this week, and while the chard and lettuce are still in my fridge, waiting for their turn, I can feel somewhat satisfied that most, if not all, of those vegetables I schlepped home so hopefully on Saturday are going to end up in my stomach rather than in the compost.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It's a Pie Party! Blueberry Crumble Pie

So, first I made a pie crust (documented here), and then I made pie. Because even though as recently as a few months ago I was scared of pie crust, I wanted to be part of the pie party.

My friend Gina Hyams has just come out with a book called Pie Contest in a Box, and so she's made me think about pie more than I usually do. And then I read about Shauna Ahern, aka Gluten-free Girl, having an internet pie party. Apparently, thousands of people are making pies and many of them are blogging about it today. How could I resist?

I had to contemplate what kind of pie to make. Strawberries are almost gone here, and blueberries and peaches are not yet in season, though they will be soon. Rather than using non-local fruit, I decided to go for the local but frozen option--the blueberries still in my freezer from last summer's annual blueberry picking expedition.

I scoped out some recipes and relied mostly on a combination of Mark Bittman and King Arthur Flour. I decided that, despite my newfound comfort level with pie crust, I didn't want to make a 2-crusted pie. And given my love for peach-blueberry crumble and for blueberry crumble bars, it made sense to make a blueberry crumble pie.

I tossed the blueberries with sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest, lemon juice and a dash of nutmeg. I made my standard crumble topping from oats, flour, brown sugar, melted butter and walnuts. I topped one with the other and baked. Delicious smells wafted from the oven.

What I didn't do was wait to cut it. It was after 9 p.m., and Alex was lying on the couch, sleepy and waiting for his pie. The King Arthur Flour Baking Book said "Hold your horses." (Really.) Don't even think of cutting that pie until it's cool. But reader, I cut it. I waited until the vanilla ice cream was sufficiently soft, and then I cut it.

And lo, it was wet. Yes, my blueberry pie had turned into blueberry pie soup.

But you know, between the blueberries and lemon, the oats and walnuts, the vanilla ice cream melting in rivulets across the plate, it didn't really matter.

There was pie, and it was good.

Blueberry Crumble Pie
loosely adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, with
additional help from The King Arthur Flour Baking Book

1 9 inch pie crust (I used Melissa Clark's all-butter Perfect Pie Crust.)

5 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen, picked over, rinsed and dried
1/2 - 1 cup sugar, depending on your preferences and the sweetness of your berries
2 tbsp. corn starch
Pinch nutmeg and/or cinnamon
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Dash of salt

Crumble Topping
1 cup whole rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
3 tbsp. brown sugar
4 tbsp. melted butter
1/3 - 1/2 cup walnuts (optional)
pinch salt

Note: I did not bake my pie crust ahead of time. None of the recipes I looked at called for it. However, given the soupiness of the fruit, I probably would blind bake it next time. The outside of the crust was nicely crispy, but the bottom was soggy. That might just be the way of fruit pies, but I'm going to experiment.

Preheat oven to 450.

If desired, partially blind bake pie shell. Good instructions for doing so here: Blind Baking a Pie Crust

For filling, toss blueberries with sugar, corn starch, lemon zest, lemon juice, nutmeg and salt.

Pile berries into crust.

Combine oats, flour, brown sugar, salt, nuts (if using) and melted butter. Distribute over blueberries and pat into place.

Place pie pan on baking sheet (in case of drips). Bake at 450 F for 10 minutes and then reduce heat to 350 F and bake for another 40-50 minutes. (I baked mine for another 45.) Cool on a rack for as long as you can stand it (longer is, indeed, better). Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom from Fear of Pie Crusts

For a long time, I thought the world was split between bread people and pie people. Not bread and pie eaters, but bread and pie makers. Either you weren't scared of yeast and made bread or you weren't scared of the crust and made pie. I was a bread person, no question. I'd been baking bread since I was a teenager and laughed in the face of yeast fear.

Pie, on the other hand, scared me. It was the crust, of course. That delicate balance between flour and fat. How would I know when the butter was mixed in correctly? What if I put too much water in? What about the endless sticking and the attempts to put the sticky sad crust into a pie plate. By the time the crust was done, I was too stressed out to enjoy it.

So, I just didn't make pie. Occasionally I'd buy a supermarket crust for a quiche. But more often, I found alternatives for quiche and stuck with cookie crusts for pie.

I have Melissa Clark to thank for my conversion. Or maybe conversion isn't the right word. But I think I can safely say that I am no longer afraid of pie crusts, and I give Melissa Clark my gratitude. It was her perfect pie crust recipe in In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite that helped me face my fear and overcome it. Melissa's recipe was the start, but there were several other simple things that made this possible.

First, the chopper.

If you mix the flour and butter in a mini-chopper or food processor, you don't really have to think about pastry blenders or wonder about when the ingredients are mixed enough. A few whirls, and it's done. And when you add the cold water, a tablespoon at a time, it becomes clearly apparent when the dough is sticking together.

The second crucial piece is the plastic wrap.

I use this method when I bake biscotti--you spoon the wet and too soft batter onto a length of plastic wrap, which allows you to mold it into a shape that you can freeze until it's hard enough to work with. So it is with pie crust. You dump the messy, sticky mass of flour/butter/water onto the plastic wrap, and in moments, you have a nice round disk all ready to chill.

The last crucial item is the Silpat.

I used to try to roll out pie crusts on a cutting board, and it was frustration incarnate. But from the start of my getting-over-my-fear-of-pie-crust attempts, I realized I needed to change that. I put my Silpat on the dining room table, so there was room to work, with some flour handy nearby.

The marble rolling pin was a gift from my friend Derick 20 years ago. Why Derick decided he should send me a marble rolling pin in the mail from Boston to Eugene, Oregon, I have no idea, but 20 years have now passed, and while the rolling pin has lost its handles, it still works beautifully.

Because the dough is chilled, you can roll it out before it gets sticky. I put a bit of flour down on the Silpat, added a bit more as I was working and turned the dough over a few times. Rolling a pie crust out on a floured Silpat is not stressful, it turns out. Just when you wonder whether the dough is warming up, it's big enough for your pie. Voila.

This is maybe the fourth or fifth crust I've made since I discovered Melissa's recipe and the method documented here, and I've made 2 in the past 2 weeks! Unthinkable even a year ago.

Not that losing my fear of pie crusts is going to make me scared of yeast. I'm just going to have to widen my view of the world just a little bit, now that I am a person who can not only make bread, but also pie.

All-Butter Perfect Pie Crust
from Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite

Time: 15 minutes plus one hour's chilling

1 1/4cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

8-10 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably a high-fat, European-style butter like Plugra, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (Clark's recipe calls for 10 tablespoons; my crusts have been plenty buttery with 8.)

2 to 5 tablespoons ice water (I seem to always need 5.)

1. In a food processor, briefly pulse together the flour and salt. Add butter and pulse until mixture forms chickpea-size pieces (3 to 5 one-second pulses). Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until mixture is just moist enough to hold together.

2. Form dough into a ball, wrap with plastic and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before rolling out and baking.

Yield: One 9-inch single pie crust. Recipe can be doubled for a double crust; divide dough into two balls and form two disks before chilling.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Links: The June Swoon Edition

So, as typically happens post-blogathon, I fell into a bit of a June swoon. This one was delayed temporarily by the V.S. Naipaul flap, but it arrived nonetheless.

These links have been piling up, and the time has come to share them. I'm hoping that this time of rest in June will stoke my blogging energy again, so that I'll be back more regularly in July. Until then, a lot of links!

The India Links

The New York Times is running a series of pieces about India, and it's not surprising I'm finding them fascinating. A couple of weeks ago, they ran a piece about Gurgaon and how the city has been built up basically without any infrastructure. I had never spent any time in Gurgaon before Sunil moved there, and it is a very strange place. I went to one mall that is glitzier than any mall I've ever been in in the U.S., and I've watched Sunil's street being torn up for a very belated installation of sewer pipes. I've seen the fleets of cars waiting outside the multinational companies whose offices are in Gurgaon, and I've bumped along the truly terrible roads right next to them. It's rare to think of Delhi as organized in any way, but compared to Gurgaon it is.

Jim Yardley's article on Gurgaon

Jim Yardley answers questions about the piece and Gurgaon

The NYT Gurgaon slideshow

The slide with evidence that more than one pink-topped rickshaw exists!

My final India link is unrelated to Gurgaon. A few weeks ago, I had one of those frantic meet-in-the-aisles-of-Trader-Joes catch-ups with an old friend. She had her 3 month old baby in a front pack (last time I'd seen her, she had only a toddler; now there are 2!) and was supposed to be buying food for dinner. While her very patient baby waited, we gabbed hurriedly in the frozen food aisle. And she told me about a blog I'd never heard of about Indian food. The blog, Eat and Dust (a play, of course, on the title of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 1975 novel, Heat and Dust, made into a movie in 1983 with Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi and Zakir Hussein) is written by a British woman, Pamela Timms, who's lived in Delhi for a number of years with her family. (Her husband is the South Asia correspondent for the Telegraph.) Her specialty is Delhi street food. I've only begun to explore the blog, but it's right up my alley.

A Telegraph article about Pamela Timms (They call her the "Delia of Old Delhi.")

The Obituary Links

It seemed an interesting coincidence that on the day when there were already all these India-related pieces in the NY Times, there was also the obituary of M.F. Husain, one of the most famous painters to come out of modern India:

M.F. Husain

Husain died at 95. It was clearly a bad week for talented nonagenarians, as the next day, obits for the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor appeared.

I had only vaguely heard of Fermor before Anthony Lane wrote a fascinating profile of him in the New Yorker in 2006. It may only be available to subscribers, but it's totally worth a read.

Anthony Lane on Patrick Leigh Fermor, 2006

Anthony Lane's response to Fermor's death, June 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor Guardian obit

Patrick Leigh Fermor New York Times obit

The Local Links

We've had good news and bad news here in Western Massachusetts in the past 10 days or so.

The good news is that Amherst College, my alma mater, has named Carolyn "Biddy" Martin to be its 19th president. She will be the first woman president and the first openly gay president. Amherst was founded in 1821 and went coed in 1976. That's 155 years of being a men's college. When I was there in the mid-late 1980's, it felt more like a men's school that let women attend than a truly coed college. That's changed in the past 20 years, certainly, but this is a big step, and I'm delighted that they've finally taken it.

Amherst's announcement on Biddy Martin

New York Times piece on Biddy Martin

The bad news came a few days later. Our beloved local video store, Pleasant St. Video, announced that they are closing in July. They've been a fixture in downtown Northampton for 25 years. I've been a member for 16 of those years; I joined when I moved back to this area in 1995. Not only do they have a great collection, it's the kind of place where you might run in to pick something up and end up staying there much longer than planned because you're chatting with the folks at the counter or watching whatever movie is playing on the TV in the corner.

They are going out on their own terms, at least. The store didn't close overnight, and they are undertaking a fundraising effort to save their huge, varied, quirky collection by having people donate to the Forbes library in Northampton. For every $8 donation, they'll give Forbes a DVD. They're letting people donate generally or to save specific titles. (I wanted to save "Slings and Arrows," but someone else had claimed it, so I saved the films of Mira Nair instead, even though I haven't actually seen all of them.) It turns out that you can donate credits to save films also, and I have more than 30 credits on file with them. (I always bought credits in advance, and I have to admit that I wondered when I bought my last batch of credits last fall whether I'd use them all before the store closed.) I've already donated some to bolster my crush on Bill Nighy by saving the UK version of State of Play and a somewhat obscure but quite wonderful British film called The Lawless Heart, which Alex and I watched years ago and which I've always wanted to see again. I have a bit more time to decide. Meanwhile, according to the local NPR station, they raised $20,000 the first week, about a third of what they need to save whole collection. Let's hope the momentum continues.

Pleasant Street Video's Save the Catalog page

The local NPR station on Pleasant Street's Closing

The Valley Advocate on the end of Pleasant Street Video

Saturday, June 4, 2011

V.S. Naipaul is a pompous ass: an addendum

I wanted to add one more link to yesterday's list of links about V.S. Naipaul's recent comments about women and writing.

Roxana Robinson wrote an eloquent piece about the dangers of views like Naipaul's and how they're reflected in the way books are read, judged and rewarded these days. One of the key paragraphs:

Naipaul’s pronouncements are antediluvian. I won’t dignify with a response his comments on the mastery of the household; Diana Athill, the editor-turned-writer whom Naipaul denounces, is quite right to treat his maunderings as absurd. But if we can agree that this is absurd, then why do the numbers show, year after year, that our literary culture supports Naipaul’s belief? Why is it that men’s writing receives more prizes, more attention and more public acclaim than women’s? How is it that we accept this as a cultural norm?
"Do Women Write 'Tosh'?": Roxana Robinson's response.

I also wanted to post a quote, which is pretty much the first thing I thought of when I read about Naipaul's comments, in particular his comment about women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world . . . And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too."

Years ago, in graduate school, I read Annette Kolodny's essay, "Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism." (The full text can be found here.) I don't remember many of the details, but there's one bit that remains, after all these years. It's this:
The (usually male) reader who, both by experience and by reading, has never made acquaintance with those [sex-related] contexts [out of which women write]--historically, the lying-in room, the parlor, the nursery, the kitchen, the laundry, and so on--will necessarily lack the capacity to fully interpret the dialogue or action embedded therein; . . . Virginia Woolf therefore quite properly anticipated the male reader's disposition to write off what he could not understand, abandoning women's writing as offering "not merely a difference of view, but a view that is weak, or trivial or sentimental because it differs from his own."
Virginia Woolf said that in 1929; Annette Kolodny wrote her essay in 1980. It's now 2011; isn't it time to move on? Aren't there other, better ways to spend our time than having to defend the writing of half the population against one arrogant bastard (as eloquent as some of those defenses have been)? Maybe we could actually be writing instead. Imagine.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Links: The V.S. Naipaul is a pompous ass edition

Not surprisingly, V.S. Naipaul's comments earlier this week that he found no woman author equal to him have provoked an outpouring of comment. Naipaul went on to say that Jane Austen, in particular, was overly sentimental, and that his former editor, Diana Athill, wrote "feminine tosh." Let's hear it for open-mindedness and humility, Sir Vidia!

Here's a roundup of some interesting links about the controversy.

First, the Guardian's piece on Naipaul's original comments.

A few sum ups from American publications:

Delia Cabe in the Boston Globe

The Christian Science Monitor

A few responses from writers who happen to be female:

Diana Athill's response, also in the Guardian: Naipaul's attacks "just made me laugh."

The lovely Diana Abu-Jaber on NPR: From One Writer to Another: Shut Up, V.S. Naipaul

Jennifer Egan (no stranger to controversy about gender and writing) in the Wall Street Journal: "He sounds like such a cranky old man."

A Quiz

The Guardian included a quiz to see whether people could determine the gender of the writer by a paragraph, as Naipaul claims he can.

Take the quiz yourself.

I got 7 out of 10 right. What was more interesting to me was that there was only one passage (from Mary Wesley's novel Harnessing Peacocks) that I actually recognized, but it turns out that I'd actually read 6 of the 10 books on the list. (And of the 3 I got wrong, I'd read 2 of the books--go figure!)

About the photo:

I thought I'd be like the L.A. Times, which used a picture of Jonathan Franzen in an article about Jennifer Egan winning the LA Times book prize (and Jonathan Franzen losing it). So, I'm heading this with a picture of that pervasive sentimentalist, Jane Austen, so as not to have a photo of Naipaul on my blog. So there.

The Last Word

This last is a blog post linked by my old grad school pal, Kristen Lindquist, on Facebook. I'm grateful to her for it. I think this serves as an excellent final word, of the many that will be written, about Naipaul and his opinions.

Dawn Potter: A small response to V.S. Naipaul

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May showers bring June flowers

So, I was all set to do another wrap up post like last year's "Thoughts on 31 days of blogging," but here it is, 10:22 p.m. on 5/31, and any further thoughts I have on 31 days of blogging are not particularly coherent. Though this moment does, in fact, feel emblematic of the whole blogathon. You can have a plan, but sometimes other things get in the way, and then you need an alternative. And if you're a person who told yourself that you were going to finish the goddamn blogathon whether you liked it or not, then you're going to finish it however you can, even if you have to limp a bit across the finish line.

I don't know if I learned anything new, really, having done this 3 times now. I still know that I would have trouble keeping up with daily blogging for more than a month. But I also know that I really do like blogging, and it gives me impetus to continue. The one bit of advice I have for future blogathoners is to plan, plan, plan, and when you think you've planned ahead enough, plan some more. I felt pretty good through week two, and then I looked at my list of ideas for posts and I'd used most of them already, and the second half of the month started looking really, really long.

Thankfully, just when I was in need of a last post to get me safely into June, my flowers cooperated. I woke up this morning to discover that my oriental poppy (which, for reasons I don't understand, I seem to have planted right next to the compost pile) went from having one bloom to eight, overnight.

And while the clematis does not quite have a grasp on actually growing up the broken ladder as it's supposed to, it does seem to have mastered producing flowers for the first time, so that's something.

And with that, I wish everyone a happy June! Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Wordle

It's always fun to do a blogathon wordle. The past two years, I've done them on my own. This year, it's a sanctioned blogathon theme day! My only problem with wordles is that I find it difficult to do just one of them.

I couldn't decide which one I liked better, so I did both. What's interesting is that the wordle only seems to capture words from the past few days of blogging. Surely if I'd done this earlier, there would have been ample mentions of both rhubarb and cake, not to mention chickens. Instead, I have a Delhi metro/rickshaw-centric wordle, which is interesting in its own way.

Take two:
Click on them for the full effect. And then try a wordle of your own! The Wordle site has all the info on how to do it and all the options (there are many!).

On this Monday holiday, I have some vegetables to plant and a 9th birthday party to attend. I'll be back tomorrow with some final thoughts on this month of blogging, that is, amazingly, just about over.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

False Indigo in bloom

Just in time for the end of May and the end of the blogathon, the false indigo has bloomed. (I wrote about the false indigo first here in 2008, updated it here in 2009 and triumphantly reported its first real blooms here last year.)

Given its current state of bloom, I think I can safely say that the false indigo is here to stay:

In 2009, the year after I planted it:

In May, 2010:

May 29, 2011: