Thursday, November 20, 2008

What I Love About Germany: Kaffee und Kuchen

There aren’t a lot of things I love about Germany, but there is one thing that I do enjoy. It’s the afternoon tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen. Around 3:00 PM all business stops and people gather around a table for a slice of cake (or pie!), a cup of coffee, and conversation. I was able to participate in the high-caloric relaxing ritual this past Sunday in Stuttgart when I was visiting my friend Foong (I know Foong from an intensive German class I took four years ago).

Now remember, this is Germany and NOTHING -- except for gas stations -- is open on Sundays. Gas stations and bakeries, that is. The bakeries are allowed to be open for a few hours on Sundays, but this is only after successfully arguing that since the gas stations were selling fresh bread on Sunday mornings bakeries were losing their Saturday business.

So on Sunday, after arriving at Foong’s, we jumped in the car and drove to the neighborhood Konditorei before it closed at three.

Arriving at Rosenstoeckle, we saw cars coming and going, and a line of customers that stretched out the door. This gave me plenty of time to inspect the assortment of tarts and cakes filled with creamy layers and luscious fruits. I was so taken by the colors and textures, imagining each of the delicious flavors on my tongue, I told Foong I wanted take a picture.

“You should ask first,” warned Foong. Yes, she was right. I had been reprimanded many times during the three years I lived in Germany for (inadvertently) doing something wrong – like not laying my wine bottles down on the conveyor belt in the grocery store or bringing my wedding dress to the dry cleaners with Champagne stains – so I knew asking was the right thing to do in order to avoid the predictable public humiliation.

Darf ich ein Foto machen?” I asked the woman behind the counter. To subdue her shock (or was it horror?), I explained that everything looked so delicious, especially to an American. To my great relief, her face relaxed and then she turned toward me holding two plates of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, known in English as Black Forest Cake. I had meant that I wanted to take a picture of the bakery display, but to see her standing there offering such a generous smile, posing with the plates, I snapped the shot and smiled back.

We took our four pieces of cake home – though what we chose was more pie than cake (rhubarb, apple, and plum each nestled in a bed of vanilla custard) – and devoured them around Foong’s dining room table. Her husband Karl and son Oscar joined us, and we chatted about their upcoming travels to Asia, Oscar’s school, and Obama's win as the cold rain fell outside. As we laughed and ate and finished our coffee I relaxed, reminded that there's something good in everybody and in every place. And that includes Germany.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Mother-Daughter Pie Lesson in Germany

What else does one do when in Germany but teach their hosts how to make American apple pie? As Stuttgart, Germany was where my month in Europe began and ended -- due to the non-stop Delta flight I booked round-trip to Atlanta -- I found myself making a promise when I first arrived at my friend Julia's house in mid-October and fulfilling that promise before departing in mid-November. If it hadn't been for that apple tree beckoning with its ripe fruit right outside the kitchen window the topic might not have come up. Then again, I know there's no avoiding the pie subject. Julia had come to my first pie-baking party in Portland, Oregon more than one year earlier when we were both living there. (She got a big promotion and transferred back to Daimler headquarters, while my husband got transferred to the hinterlands of high-altitude Mexico.) Julia was determined that I give her a refresher course. (Which, by the way, was a completely fair exchange for the beautiful guest room she was letting me stay in.) Her mother was equally determined. Like mother, like daughter, as they say.
All business: Julia approaches her apple peeling the way she does her job a Mercedes Benz -- fast and efficient.
Many hands make little work, or Viele Hände machen bald ein Ende, as they say in Germany.
Frau Beck knows what she's doing. She's clearly made a number of Apfel Kuchens in her day!

Apples -- and the pies they end up in -- know no cultural boundaries. Whether Germany or the USA or some other country, apple pie is always delicious, the deliverer of happiness, and something that brings people together -- and this one was no exception. Neither do apples and pie care about age differences. Not only two countries, but two generations came together to create something so sweet and satisfying, so delicate and mouth-watering.
Frau Beck and Frau Beck Jr. earned an A-plus in teamwork and final outcome of their mother-daughter pie. We ate the pie for dessert that night and had more for breakfast before I flew off. I look forward to hearing their stories next fall when the apples on their tree ripen again. And for all that I have complained about Germany (for which I apologize!), I hope I can return next November, stay in that beautiful guest room overlooking the autumn-colored hills of Stuttgart, and bake pie -- be it American-style or some European recipe-- with these gorgeous and generous German women.

A Month of Contrasts, A Month of Pie

(PHOTO: View out of my Monte-Carlo hotel room)

It is my last day in Europe after a five-week journey. I was in five countries, spoke five languages, spent money in four currencies, and baked eight pies. My travels started in Mexico and took me to Germany, Switzerland, England, Monaco, and back to Germany. It’s a fascinating thing to move between so many cultures, landscapes, and languages. During this month I have perused the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair, hiked in the Swiss Alps, driven through The Cotswalds in England’s countryside, walked the length of Kings’ Road in Chelsea, and dined with Prince Albert (OK, so it was along with 300 other people) in Monaco. Tomorrow I return to Saltillo, Mexico.

(PHOTO: Close encouters with cows during a hike in the Swiss Emmental)

I feel very privileged to be able to live a life as rich and varied as this. “Varied,” however, may be the wrong word. “Schizophrenic” may be more like it. To underscore this, just yesterday I was working on the publicity for a conference in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. Today I was baking apple pie in Stuttgart, Germany. Yesterday I was dressed in my pin-striped Armani suit. Today I wore my ratty jeans and running shoes. Yesterday I was elbow to elbow with high-ranking media executives. Today I was up to my elbows in pie dough with my friend Julia and her mother. Yesterday I was asked, “Voulez-vous aller à l'aéroport dans la Bentley ou la Masarati?” Today I was asking, “Haben Sie noch mehr Äpfel für den Pie?” Tomorrow I will be saying decidedly less interesting things like, “Tengo que lavar mi ropa.” (I have to do my laundry.)
(PHOTO: Looking toward the Battersea Bridge in London)

What continues to amaze me through all this international travel is the common language of pie. No matter what country, I would always find that people love pie. I discovered so many kinds of pie and pie-lovers this month – from the British palm reader who told me of the Stargazy Pie to the French CEO who reminisced about his grandmother’s Pear Tatin to the waiter in the Chelsea pub who recommended the Steak & Mushroom Pie over the Fish & Chips. No matter whether a pie was filled with fruit or fish, cheese or chocolate, people were always eager to share recipes, stories, bites, and a smile.

Though I have no idea where the journey will take me next, clearly, I will continue to find pie. Or, as is more often the case, pie will find me.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

How To Make an Apple Pie in London

How do you make an apple pie in London? First you travel from Mexico, to Germany, to Switzerland and then take EasyJet to London to visit one of your dearest, most favorite, and definitely most FUN friends in the world. (Here she is, the gorgeous Alayne Reesberg, pictured below.) No sooner do you arrive you pack up the car and head out of the city to The Cotswolds, the quaint countryside near Oxford, about an hour and a half northwest of London.

You navigate the winding country roads, dodging wild pheasants, and end up in the town of Burford where can easily imagine you're going to run into William Shakespeare on the street. You resist stopping on Burford's High Street (pictured) for a spot of tea and a plate of scones in one of its many inviting tea shops and instead keep driving until you come to the cottage of Alayne's friends.

When you get to this cottage -- a dreamy little storybook thatched roof place -- you meet the equally charming couple that lives in it. Jeremy (who Alayne met during her childhood in South Africa) has an autographed picture of Prince Charles and Julia is wearing her diamond necklace with jeans and a flannel shirt. Julia offers you a bag of apples from the trees in her back yard. The apples, you know, will taste better than anything you could buy in a London grocery store as her yard is as magical as the cottage -- lush and green, surrounded by grazing sheep and a meandering creek, and there's an antique covered wagon from Ireland painted fire-engine red sitting in the middle of it all. (The word "eccentric" comes to mind.) You happily accept the apples, putting the bag in the car and driving back to London.

Your apples (pictured above) find their way back to the posh city apartment. A new day begins as daw breaks over the River Thames and Buckingham Palace. It's a good day to bake a pie.

But before you can get started you shop at Waitrose, an upscale grocery store. You choose from a variety of flours you've never seen before and settle on the "Strong White Bread Flour," attracted to the words "Strong" and "White" and not realizing the "Bread" part until you get home.
Bread, pie, it's all "jolly good" or "brilliant!" as the Brits like to say.

Next you gather up a few willing pie students -- in this case, your host Alayne and her friend Dee (both South Africans living in London), along with Dee's 2-and-1/2-year-old son, Rafe. You tie on aprons, pour a glass of wine (juice for Rafe), get out more wine bottles to use as rolling pins, and get to work.
(For the complete, step-by-step apple pie process, see "How to Make an Apple Pie in Mexico.")
Later, you watch as yet another perfect pie enters the world and another baker is born.
Dee (pictured above) exclaims, "Dahling, I cahhn't believe I made this. It looks fine, doesn't it. A bloody miracle, actually."
After indulging in several steaming, cinnamon-sprinkled pieces of their creations you feel happy, but not only because of the warm pie in your belly. It's the beaming smiles on your friends' faces that make the evening so satisfying, so -- I just have to say it -- fit for a queen.
Until I report from the next country, cheerio!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Stargazy Pie and Other Things I Learned From a London Psychic

Gazing at the more ways than one.

(This picture of STARGAZY PIE was borrowed from the Internet...thanks to whoever took it.)

The subject of pie inevitably comes up no matter where I go it seems. "Pie" follows me everywhere, as if I'm wearing a perfume of cinnamon and apples that hangs on me the way a scent stays in the kitchen long after a pie is done baking.

Take, for example, the palm reading I just had done on King's Road in London. The woman, Diana (and I don't mean Princess) studied the lines in my hand with her magnifying glass and asked me if I'm a writer. "Yes, I am," I replied, impressed with her first of many correct intuitions.

"Are you also a teacher?" she asked.

I hestitated a moment and then ventured, "Well, I do teach people how to make pie," quickly adding, "American-style pies, like apple pie."

Her eyes lit up, she looked directly at me and smiled. "You should go to Books for Cooks in Notting Hill," she said. It's got the biggest and best cookbook collection in London, if not all of England. You could find many pie books there."

"I'll be sure to check it out," I said, anxious for her to get back to my reading so she could tell me about the rest of my life.

"You could make pie cards, postcards, and send them to people," she continued.

"Uh huh," I nodded. Now let's get on with it. What do you see in my lifeline?

"I see that you're impatient. And instead of delegating you would rather do all the work yourself."


"I see international travel in your future, over long distances," she continued, peering at the lines on my palm. Not that there was much clairvoyance to her statement seeing as I was already 5,000 miles from home. "You could write about pies around the world."

That got my attention. I hadn't told her about my blog. "I already am," I told her, amazed that she had hit on exactly what I love doing. How did she know that? Did she detect cinnamon under my nails and computer keyboard indentations on my fingertips?

Maybe we seek out psychics to affirm what we already know as our truth. I don't know if writing about pie is my destiny, but it's what makes me happy. It's one of the few things, work-wise, that I am passionate about these days. Will I ever make a living at this? I'd love it if that happened -- god knows, I need to earn money. Food, rent, health insurance, and international travel are not cheap. But even if I don't get some huge audience on my blog (to eventually earn ad dollars) or publish some money-making bestseller (I do have a book of my pie essays in the works), it was somehow reassuring to hear that writing -- be it about pie, about the world, or a combination of both -- is in the (Tarot) cards for me.

"Write the name of your blog down for me before you leave," she said. "I'd love to see it."

She finished the session convincing me my future looks bright, and as I scribbled my blog URL on the back of my business card she asked, "Do you know about Stargazy Pie?" I shook my head no. "It's a pie that's a specialty of Cornwall. The fish are lined up with their heads sticking out from under the crust, looking up at the stars."

The image of the poor little dead fish looking longingly at the sky with lifeless eyes made me a little sad. But I was so intrigued I looked it up online as soon as I got back to the apartment. I found a Stargazy Pie recipe by London chef Mark Hix that sounded rather delicious, and easy. (Recipe is also below.)

I don't know if the rest will come true from my reading -- a new place to live, a trip to Bali, a windfall of cash, etc. -- but I definitely see a new pie in my future.

Serves: 4 Prep: 25 min Cook: 1 hr
Ingredients25g Butter1 onion, finely chopped3 rashers rindless streaky bacon, chopped into rough 5mm dice1/2 tbsp Flour, plus more for dusting3 tbsp dry white wine250ml fish stock, (or a corner of a good-quality fish stock cube dissolved in 250ml hot water)300ml double cream2 tbsp chopped Parsley2 hard-boiled Eggs, shelled and chopped6 pilchards, herrings, or small mackerel, filleted, any residual bones removed and heads reserved200g Puff pastry, rolled out to a thickness of about 3mm1 egg, beaten

1. Heat the butter in a medium pan and gently cook the onion and bacon until soft. Add the flour and stir well, then slowly add the wine and fish stock, stirring well to prevent lumps forming. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Add the cream, bring back to the boil and simmer until reduced by half and thickened. Remove from the heat; add the parsley and chopped egg, season with salt and pepper and leave to cool.
3. Preheat the oven to 200C/gas 6.
4. Cut the fillets of fish in half and lay them in a shallow pie or flan dish, then lightly season with salt and pepper.
5. Pour the sauce over the fish. Lay the pastry over the dish and trim it to size. Make 6 small slits in the pastry and push the reserved fish heads through them. Brush the top with the beaten egg. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the pastry is golden and risen.
6. Serve with greens in autumn and winter, or with a selection of spring vegetables.

To read more about Mark Hix and see more of his recipes, including a Beef Shin, Porter and Oyster Pie (huh?!) click here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Signs of Pie in England

Here in England you may not find pumpkin, strawberry rhubarb, lemon meringue, or other American favorites but oh you will find plenty of pie! Steak and Kidney Pie, Fish Pie, Shepherd's Pie, Cottage Pie, and even something called Chesire Fidget Pie. The Brits may like their pies savory instead of sweet, filled with meat instead of fruit, but to that I say variety is the spice of life!
And on that read-between-the-lines theme of cultural tolerance, let me just report from London how ecstatic people are outside of the USA about the presidential election. People stayed up through the night to hear the results and, finally, at 4:20 a.m. GMT we got the good news about Barack Obama. People were toasting pints of Guinness in pubs all over Great Britain and beyond. We may be sleep-deprived here today, but we're not too tired to get started immediately in helping mend America's reputation in the world.
With that, I am about to teach my British hosts how to make an apple pie, American-style -- an appropriate flavor, I feel, because with a new president life does indeed seem very SWEET.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Obama Loves Pie!

Here's how amazing it is to be globally connected with cell phones, Internet and other multi-media miracles. I was sitting in my friend Eve's house in a tiny village in Switzerland, staring out at the cows grazing in the foothills of the Alps (view pictured right), when Eve's sister Uschi called from The Maldives. She was vacationing in this tropical paradise somewhere off the coast of India, calling from a sandy white beach.
"Did you hear the news today?" Uschi asked.
"What news?" I replied.
"Obama loves pie!" she exclaimed. "He stopped for a piece of pie somewhere on his campaign trail."
"That's great!"I said. "Thanks for telling me." Excitedly, the minute I hung up, I looked up the article on CNN to verify the story. It was true. Obama had dipped into a diner and ordered Coconut Cream Pie while the Governor of Ohio had a piee of Lemon Meringue.
Still, I don't know what was more fascinating: the way this news had criss-crossed three continents to reach me or that Obama was promoting pie. All I know is that the White House kitchen staff better stock up on butter, sugar, shortening, flour, eggs, and coconut. And if Obama needs a personal pie chef, I'm happy to volunteer.

Here's the video of Obama -- in case you missed it:

Bird by Bird, Pie by Pie

Dawn in London, 6AM Sunday 2 November 2008
It's been three weeks since my last pie post. I'm traveling non-stop (for what will be a total of 8 weeks) and haven't been able to focus on writing. (If you were living out of a suitcase and having to wash all your undies by hand, you too might be thinking less about blogging and more about where to find a clothesline.)
I love blogging about pie, but the thing is, once you lose the momentum of blogging it's overwhelming to know where and how to start again. There's just so much to write about! No matter where in the world I am (Los Angeles, Saltillo, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Bern, London) I find pie stories every single day. It's become so daunting, in fact, that I have developed a new momentum...of procrastinating.
I tossed and turned in bed last night, beating myself up again for yet another missed day of blogging, until I gently reminded myself of Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In it she talks of how her father advised her brother, who was crying over how on earth he was going to finish his school report on birds, to simply "take it bird by bird."
Add to that, I happened to read an article by my journalist friend, David Hochman, about Malcom Gladwell's new book, Outliers (out November 18). David quotes Gladwell as saying, "Talent is overrated. What really matters is work. Put in the hours and it will happen (wake up before the sun 360 days of the year and you WILL be successful.)"
So today, I got out of bed at 6:00 a.m., turned on my computer, and will now resume my postings, one bird -- er, pie -- at a time. I'm happy to be back. At least to my virtual home.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I Was Born Because of Banana Cream Pie

My visit to my parents in L.A. culminated in the baking of a banana cream pie. This pie has great significance in my life because banana cream pie was how my mom got my dad to marry her. If it wasn't for banana cream pie I would not have been born. Banana Cream was my dad's favorite pie, so back in 1958 my mom invited him over for supper at her bachelorette apartment, served him a tuna casserole followed by this luscious dessert, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I have always wanted to get the recipe for this famous "marriage pie" and finally I pinned my mom down for a look into her kitchen files.

The recipe, as it turns out, simply came from the old Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. Published in 1953, my mom still has her original copy (pictured left), though it is difficult to read the stained and shredded pages. Luckily the company published this SAME cookbook, word for word, just a few years ago so she also has a new, clean copy too.

We set about our pie making task, a rare joint effort. She hasn't made banana cream pie from scratch since the invention of instant pudding. Quelle horreur! But at my insistence, she rummaged in the cupboards for the necessary ingredients such as cornstarch, sugar, eggs and vanilla (all were on hand) and we got started.

I made the dough, laying it directly on her granite countertops for rolling and discovered our first difference of opinion. "I never do it like that," she said. "I roll it between wax paper." But she was open to my technique (just sprinkle flour to stop the sticking), she took charge of the rolling pin (a wedding present she got from her mother-in-law) and we proceeded to the next step.

"I can't eat bananas," she said. So we created a banana free zone allowing for her to have a wedge of just the vanilla pudding.

And finally the pie came out of the oven. My dad, who has been used to the instant pudding/graham cracker crust easy version for the last 20 years couldn't stop raving about what a great pie this was. So great was it that the pie plate was scraped clean by the three of us within one day. "I guess I'm going to have to start making it from scratch again," she laughed.

I couldn't help but note what a loving thing that was for her to say. My parents will celebrate FIFTY (50!!) years of marriage in June (2009) and she still likes making my dad his favorite pie.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't Get Mad, Get Busy

Things went from bad to worse at the dog park this week. The woman with the three big dogs was there again, and AGAIN they came toward us, surrounded us, and provoked another attack. But this time I was prepared. I had brought my dad, and we were both armed with big sticks -- more like branches, and, well, okay, possibly, one may have been a large broom handle. Yes, I know, this was very un-pie-like on my part, but it was for the sake of defending my 15-pound dog against her huge beasts, which, as you can see in the picture below, she is unable to handle by herself.
When she came to collect her dogs there were more profanities uttered, though not by me. She was as aggressive as her Rottweiler, but instead of saying a word I simply pulled out my digital camera and took pictures of her. JUST IN CASE. "You're taking pictures?" she asked incredulously. No, she didn't like this at all. My dad, however, was holding his stick up to fend off her dogs and he might have said something to her like, "I'll use this stick if you don't get your dogs away from us." She took this as a threat, said she was going to call the police, and went running back to the group of other dog owners, screaming "Help me!" We went about our own business, throwing the stick for Jack, and ignoring the group of people staring at us as she grumbled to them about us "threatening" her. Police? Did she really think she had a case?

The whole episode was very upsetting. The dog park is usually a very peaceful place, a rare patch of open, grassy space where you can legally have your dog off the leash without risking a $250 fine.

My dad and I went back a few days later, saw through the fence that this same woman was there with her three dogs, so we didn't go in. We walked with Jack on the outside of the park, along the sidewalk on the OPPOSITE side of the street. She saw us. She yelled, "You're lucky you're not in the park or I would call the police." We said nothing; we just kept walking. And then, a block later, we saw the black and white car pull up alongside of us. She did call the police! We were questioned, because, as they said, they were "required to follow up on a call." We told them our story and that was the end of that. I hate confrontation. I don't go looking for it, and when it finds me--first thing in the morning, no less, without any provocation--it is especially dispiriting.

This is when I employed some of my own, nearly forgotten advice, "Don't get mad, get busy." So when we returned home from the dog park I told my dad, "Come on, Dad. Get a broom, some garbage bags, and some gloves. We're going to clean up that sidewalk."

There is a neglected patch of sidewalk that I have been using every day during my stay in LA. It is my route to the dog park and every time I have walked this section I think, I can't stand all this litter and these weeds; I am going to come back and clean this up myself. Today was the day. DON'T GET MAD, GET BUSY.

I had just researched Obama events where I could volunteer (another case of Don't get mad, get busy), but I thought, why not put the energy into a community improvement project? Isn't that what Obama's message is anyway, to be part of the solution? I know it still looks scruffy (see pic above), but you should have seen it before we started! We worked for over two hours raking leaves, picking up trash, and pulling weeds. A neighbor even came out and joined in, Marvin, a gorgeous man with two kids who "has been meaning to get out here and clean this up."

A few other people walked by. They asked, "Why are you doing this? Do you own the land?" (Why ask why?! I wondered. Why not just say thank you?!)

"No," we answered. "We're doing this because we want it to look nice, and it has been neglected." We were doing it because of the "Broken Window Theory"--if you clean up the litter, people will stop littering there. It's a theory about how keeping your community clean will help reduce crime. Really I was doing it because I wanted to transform my burning negative energy into something positive--and this was one grumpy person for whom baking a peach pie would not be an option.

I always hope for a happy ending to troubling stories. The happy ending to this one is that I have stopped going to the dog park (even though it is a convenient two blocks from my parents' apartment) and instead I have been driving one mile down to the beach where there is an even bigger park, an ocean view, and a saltwater lagoon where Jack can swim. (See pic of Jack above.) There are never any other dogs around, and thus no hysterical, police-calling dog owners, and we have been enjoying our last days here in L.A. immensely. And now, when I take Jack around the block at night, I can walk on the sidewalk without getting scratched by weeds or stepping on a potato chip bag and know that I have helped make the world an ever so slightly better place.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Signs of Pie in LA

Today is the first day of my second week in Los Angeles. I woke up with a premonition that something bad might happen to my dog, so I spent 15 extra minutes in bed snuggling with Jack before taking him to the dog park. We usually have the park all to ourselves in the mornings, but today we were promptly attacked by a pack of five (5!!) large dogs (think Boxers and Rottweilers). I dove into the sea of barred teeth and pulled my 15-pound terrier out from under the dog pile, dumped my cafe latte all over my clothes, bumped my head against a tree, and found myself yelling profanities at the two women--something like "Get your F-ing dogs off of me"--as their five dogs continued to attack. To which they replied like whiny grade school girls, "Your dog started it." Nah nah nah nah nahhh nah. I went back to my parents and announced to my dad, "I could never live here again."

But things improved after breakfast when I found that my Absentee Ballot had arrived. I promptly colored in the oval for Barak Obama and ran to the post office to mail my vote. I parked but hadn't made it to the post office before spotting a postal truck. The mail carrier was in it, loading her bags. "Can I give this to you?" I asked. "It's a very important piece of mail. It's my vote for Obama." Then I paused, because, well, you never know... "Wait, you're not voting for McCain are you?"

"I'm not sure yet," she answered. "I just don't know after the last two elections."

"You mean because they were rigged?"


"I know. I've been discouraged too. But we can't give up." She listened to my spiel about why Obama is the right person, about how he's charging Americans to get off their entitled asses and be part of the solution, to DO THEIR PART, and how I felt so strongly that this was key.

"Yes," she replied, "even my 15-year-old daughter is making me bring my own grocery bags to the store and not letting me buy juice in those little plastic bottles but getting Kool-Aid in the pouches and mix it up at home instead."
"Good for her. I love hearing that," I said. It was clear she needed to get on with her mail delivery.

"You can take your ballot over to the post office if you feel better about that," she said before I left.

I just looked at her and smiled. "No, I trust you."

I looked up as I was walking back to the car and saw this sticker placed on the road sign. Why was the word PIE stuck to a No Truck Zone sign? I didn't see any pie shops around. Was it some kind of message from the universe that I'm supposed to finally open my own pie shop here? God knows, L.A. could use more pie!!! No matter the message, it made me smile--and think about making an apple pie for my parents.

Later, my dad and I met my brother Michael for lunch in the little town of El Segundo. While El Segundo's borders include LAX airport, an oil refinery, and L.A.'s main sewage treatment plant--just the mention of this town makes people wrinkle their noses in disgust--it is a DARLING little town that feels like a throw-back to Iowa. There are old-fashioned diners, hip cafes, a real town square with a grassy park, and FREE parking. I immediately wanted to start looking for a cottage to rent.

After lunch (at the fabulous Blue Butterfly Coffee Company), we walked around the block. And there was indeed a cottage for rent. A retail space. A perfect PIE SHOP location. I could just picture the pies on display in the windows. I peeked inside and could even more so imagine myself rolling dough under the vaulted ceiling, all painted in the freshest shade of white.

I called the number. The man (the current lease holder) said he would talk to the owner about me renting it as a pie shop and have them get back to me.

I said I could never live in L.A. again. But El Segundo is not L.A. Or maybe it's how L.A. used to be before snotty women started showing up with packs of mean dogs at the dog park. I don't have to decide today. Maybe I'll just have to wait for another sign.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Visit to Malibu & My Old Pie Baking Store

Remember how the pecan tree inside the house had to be stripped of its leaves due to a fungus? Turns out the problem was MUCH more pervasive. We discovered a serious mold problem, waking up each morning to new growth in places like our shoes in the closet and even under the bed! Adding to the stress, our neighbors told us this is a pre-existing condition that drove the previous tenants out, all of which was conveniently denied by our landlords. My husband saw how the situation was affecting me -- as in I WAS GOING OUT OF MY FUCKING MIND -- so he bought me a plane ticket to LA, thus allowing me to escape the construction crew subsequently descending on our otherwise peaceful casa. I use the term "construction" lightly as the landlord's mold removal technique is "just paint over it." Viva Mexico.
So, here I am in sunny Southern California for a couple of weeks at the beach. (I'll take smog over mold any day!) I took a drive up to Malibu yesterday to visit my old pie baking place--Malibu Kitchen--but things are just not the same... Mainly, there was no pie! Okay, so they had these little lemon tarts and apple bars. But as closely related as these may be to pie, these don't provoke the same warm, soothing sentiments as a whole pie! They do have some impressive cakes--and, if you look closely, you will see their prices are impressive too. $60 for one cake. Ouch. Welcome to Malibu. (My handmade pies used to sell for $20--a bargain considering the work and care that went into each one.)
The other thing that has changed since I worked there (in 2000 to 2001) is the name. It used to be called Mary's Kitchen, because Mary Spellman was a partner. Mary, who is one of the most nurturing and loving people I know (she was my pie mentor), hails from The Hampton's on Long Island and was persuaded to switch coasts and open up this gourmet deli/bakery with Bill Miller (pictured below). But Bill is not exactly a warm and fuzzy person. Not only was he cruel to Mary (which sent her packing back to New York), he has a reputation of being extremely rude to his customers. In fact, he YELLED at me to stop taking pictures of his baked goods, and I almost started crying. I took a breath, turned around and stated firmly, "It's me, Bill. Beth." That didn't stop him from continuing his reprimand.
Well, that made me decide against buying ANYTHING in his store. And, in fact, I won't bother to go back again. The next time I want to revisit my Malibu pie baking days I'll go to The Hamptons to see Mary.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pietopia in Portland

Speaking of pie contests, I just received a letter and news clipping from a friend in Portland (where we lived before moving to Mexico). The article, from The Oregonian newspaper, was about a pie contest. Contestants wrote 300-word essays about what kind of pie would best describe the way they were feeling right now--with their recipes included. Winners brought their pies to a farmer's market for passersby to get free pie. Free!
The woman who had the BRILLIANT idea to create this is Tricia Martin who says, "I wanted a creative way to bring people together through taste" and "The great thing about pie is its cross-generational appeal." Yes! I couldn't agree more.
This made me so homesick for Portland--for missing the contest, and for all those berries I didn't get to pick this year--that I might have to make one of the contest-winner recipes listed on her Pietopia blog--the "Homesick for Miami" pie. OK, Miami is as far as you can get from Portland, but maybe it would still work.
I love seeing this--this creativity, generosity, and homespun comfort in action that pulls a community together. It gives me hope that the world isn't completely going to hell.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

National Pie Championship Airs on Sunday

Calling all pie bakers! This Sunday, hang up your aprons and snuggle up on the couch for a night of delicious TV when the Food Network broadcasts its premiere of the 2008 APC Crisco National Pie Championships
Sunday, September 21st
8 PM, Eastern, Pacific Times
7 PM, Central Time

The show will have additional airings, so if you miss Sunday, check here for alternative times.
Or, if you're like me and you despise having television on in your house, here's an even better idea: Host your own Pie Baking Contest!
To do this, buy Barbara Swell's fabulous book, The Lost Art of Pie Making Made Easy in which she gives you step-by-step instructions for contest set-up, from costume ideas to prize categories. You can get a sneak peak at some her pages on Google Books, but you'll love her writing so much you'll want your very own copy.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tragedy Befalls the Pecan Tree

The harvest season is nearing. The pecans were ripening right on schedule (see "Pecans in Progress") and I was still holding onto my fantasy of being able to pad down the hallway in my bare feet to pluck the nuts off the tree inside our house for my homemade pecan pie (I mean, how much more home-made can you get?!). But disaster struck! First in the form of an almost imperceptible tiny white bug that was causing the leaves to shrivel up and drop, then in a dark brown fungus-like growth that not only covered the remaining leaves but started spreading onto the clay-tile floor. I consulted the manager of the pecan ranch, who happened to knock on the door last week asking if I would sign a petition to stop the Saturday afternoon ATV races on the other side of the ranch. Now I didn't really mind the ATV races, in spite of the four solid afternoon hours of revving, roaring engines, because at least they were confined to an established track instead of ripping up wilderness areas and terrorizing wild animals, but I signed my name and then asked if he would come inside and have a look at our sick tree.

The ranch manager rattled off all kinds of horticultural terms in high-speed Spanish and I just stood there and nodded, clueless. Basically I got that a tree does not belong inside a house, it needs light, and oxygen, and water. I explained to him the tree had survived for five years inside already. Until now. I got his phone number and had my landlord call him to get the full explanation. The next thing I know, Carlos, the landlord's son, comes over with his pruning tools. And that is the end of my pecan dreams. Well, not really. Because there are about eight hundred more trees outside, including three in my yard, there's no need to despair. We will still be up to our eyeballs in pecan pie come November.

Also, to soothe our sorrow over the nakedness of the tree, we were assured that the leaves will grow back. "Yeah, like in one or two years from now?" I asked him sarcastically. (We are only here until spring when my husband gets transferred again.) "No, maybe in one month," Carlos answered. Keeping in mind this is Mexico, where things don't happen with any sense of urgency, it remains to be seen how the pecan tree will fare. If it was a Type-A New York City variety I might have a little more confidence.

Stay tuned. I will continue to post updates on the progress--of the pecan trees and everything else.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Homemade Tortillas--and VERY Hot Chillis--at Ines' House

Ines, my Mexican artist friend, invited me over to her house to make (or, rather, watch her doña make) homemade flour tortillas this morning. But what she really wanted is for me to bring my espresso machine and make her one of my famous BIG cafe lattes.
I drove over there with my little Krups machine, made her a triple espresso with steamed milk, but I had arrived too late to see how the tortilla dough is mixed. I inquired as to what I had missed and was told the ingredients are very basic: flour, shortening (actually, "fat" is what she said), salt, and water, simply blended together in a bowl.

I did watch, however, as the tortilla dough was rolled out flat into discs the size of a dessert plate. The tortillas were then fried (but not deep fried, there is very little oil in the pan, if any) on an iron griddle until they puffed up, the layers of dough actually separating, though only momentarily.

The cooked tortillas quickly piled up as, one by one, they came off the grill. They were left to cool, then stacked and bagged in a plastic bag for later use. BUT....some went directly into a basket, kept warm by being wrapped in a cotton towel, and were served with some VERY spicy Huevos! Here is Ines spooning her second helping of the eggs onto her plate. In addition to noting Ines' giant cup of coffee on the left, note the generous amount of little green pieces scrambled in with the eggs. "These might be a little picante," Ines warned. "No problem," I answered. "I'm getting used to the Mexican spices." I hadn't even started chewing my first bite when I started screaming for help. "Drink your iced tea! Eat some cheese! Have a plain tortilla!" Ines shouted as I grabbed my burning throat with both hands and tears streamed down from my eyes. I stuffed a tortilla wrapped around a piece of cheese into my mouth and guzzled my whole glass of tea. I didn't touch the eggs again after that.

Here I am on Ines' terrace with my dog, Jack, tranquilo again at last after the fire in my throat was extinguished. It was another delightful, if not eventful, time with Ines. She invited me over again this weekend to make Chiles with pomegranates and creamy nut sauce, the dish that was featured in the book (and movie), "Like Water For Chocolate." I said I'd come, but hold the chillis, please!

(**PS: I want to note that today is September 11, and just because I am living in Mexico doesn't mean I have forgotten about this day in American--no, world--history. Even Ines brought it up over breakfast. So, this is to say, we are thinking of all those families, workers, friends of friends, all those affected directly or indirectly by the tragic events of that day and we are sending you warm, loving, healing thoughts to all of you from south of the border.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Real de Catorce: We Came for the Pie, Not the Peyote

This weekend we drove to the town of Real de Catorce--elevation 9,000 ft, population 1,200. It's a silver mining town-turned ghost town-turned movie set for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in "The Mexican"-turned up and coming trendy spot for European expats in Mexico. To get there you drive very slowly along a 17-mile-long cobblestone road, then wait at the entrance of the one-way Ogarrio Tunnel, making sure the oncoming traffic of pick-up trucks, horses, mules, and pedestrians has cleared, then proceed 1.5 miles in damp darkness though the inside of a mountain until you reach the town on the other side.

We did plenty of siteseeing on foot, ankles wobbling precariously on hundred-year-old cobblestone paths. Here we are climbing up to The Cemetery where you walk on tombstones (there is no way around them!) to get inside the chapel.

This was followed by shopping. Handicraft booths line the streets selling Huichol (Indian tribe) artwork, like the small square picture sitting on the table, made with yarn and not paint. The Huichol are known as "The People of the Peyote,"eating the hallucinogenic cactus as a way to commune with their gods. Apparently many of the original expats here came to experience this high. As for us, the altitude was high enough. We could barely breathe climbing up the steep sidewalks.

After all that driving, walking, and shopping, finally, we were able to take a break. We found a hip cafe on the corner of Plaza Hidalgo, called La Esquina Chata, run by an Italian who makes a fine espresso. And what did we find on his menu? PIE!!!! (Or "pay" if you read it in Spanish.) We had a piece of the pear and chocolate pie with our cafe lattes. Dee-lis-ee-oh-so!

Refueled with pie and coffee, we climbed back into the car (but not on top of the car like many of the locals!) and headed back to Saltillo.

I'm already looking forward to our next outing--and to discovering where we might find pie next.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Another Pie for the Neighbors

Yesterday I went over to my neighbor's house to ask if she could recommend a new maid. Ours quit because our floors are too much work to clean. I would have quit too. When I mopped these Saltillo tile floors two weeks ago--3,000 square feet of big clay squares lined by rugged grout--I was so tired I could still feel my sore muscles two days later. And I'm athletic.

I knocked on Marisa's door and she invited me in for a cup of coffee. No, she didn't know anyone, but she would drive me down to the agency in a few days. I went to leave and, like some automatic Mexican reflex, she started handing me plastic bags to take home with me--a bag of pan de pulche bread (made with cactus pulp), a bag filled with potatoes the size of cantalopes, and a bag of apples. I am always impressed by the generosity I so regularly experience in this country. But I am still shy about receiving part. "No, please, I can't take all that," I protested, especially when I saw there were at least 20 large apples in the shopping bag. She pushed the apples back at me, insisting I have them. I realized I was insulting her by not taking them so I said, "Okay, then if I take all these apples, I am going to have to make you a pie." To which she responded with a sly grin, "That is what I was hoping." What a clever woman.

Marisa knew about my apple pie as I made one a month or so earlier, as a belated birthday present for her husband. (We had been invited to his birthday fiesta at the last minute and thus had shown up empty-handed.) My pie plate was returned two weeks later, washed and filled with Dulce de Leche caramels, a locally made candy. But there was no indication as to whether or not they actually liked the pie.

I lugged my produce-filled bags across the lawn back to my house and a few minutes later someone knocked on the door. It was Fatima, Marisa's maid. Marisa had sent her to clean my house, "but just for today," Fatima said. I wanted to protest again, but my tile floors were in desperate need of mopping, so I said, "Sure, come on in." Not just a clever woman, but an exceptionally thoughtful one too. We don't interact often and I was learning a lot more about her than just the fact she drives too fast down our quiet street.

This morning, in my freshly cleaned house, I got to work first thing on that apple pie. Marisa wasn't home when I delivered it, still bubbling hot, but her teenage son was. "This is for your mom," I said. He replied with a big smile, "She loved that pie you made before." He shut the door and as I walked away I heard him yell, "Hey, we got a pay de manzana." And I heard whoever else it was in the house yell back, "Yeah!"

A clean house, healthy food that will feed us for a week, and some pretty fine neighbors who appreciate pie. Life in Mexico is good.