Saturday, August 23, 2008

TGIF: A Story About One Friday in Mexico

Even life in Mexico has its ups and downs.

I started my Friday like any other Friday, with my two-hour Spanish class. Not trying to suck up to my teacher or anything, I brought him a piece of the apple pie I made the day before. Pie is for sharing. And seeing that I meant to give the whole pie away, as a thank you to my neighbor, I was able to redeem my selfishness by parting with one slice. I asked my teacher, Jese, "How do you say 'TGIF' in Spanish?" He shook his head, "No, we don't have that expression." Could it be because every day is like Friday in Mexico? Such is the relaxed way of life here. They're not killing themselves with competition and long commutes; you can still find shops closed for a two-hour afternoon siesta.

I drove home after Spanish and noticed some roadside improvements under way. This was encouraging considering Mexico's, shall we say, relaxed approach to maintenance. Mostly one notices the litter. And the billboards reminding people not to. I took a picture for my brother Michael, who runs a non-profit grafitti-prevention/mural-painting program called Operation Clean Slate in Southern California.

When I arrived at home my husband called. "Do you want to come out to the site?" he asked. This was not part of my routine, on a Friday or otherwise. I hadn't been to the construction site of his company's new truck factory since our "Look & See" trip in May. The drive out there takes 45 minutes. I had to weigh out my options first: spend the afternoon in my light, airy office gazing out at the pecan farm or navigate the Mexican obstacle course, known as a highway, to go look at steel beams and bulldozers. Since the fight I picked with him a week ago was still somewhat unresolved, I opted for "Good Wife" and got in the car.

On the way to the factory, only one mile after leaving my house, I encountered a horse running loose down the middle of the road. This is a four-lane throughway with cars going sometimes up to 50 mph (they would go faster if not for the speed bumps). No one was stopping to get this horse off the road. I have lived here long enough (two months) to have seen a dead horse on the road and so many dead dogs I've lost count. So I pulled over, held up my hand to stop the cars, and approached the horse. I took the horse's dangling --and muddy-- lead rope and held on while the horse started running across the lanes. Stupid gringo move, perhaps, but I didn't let go. Still, no one else stopped to help. Suddenly a word came out of my mouth -- and I didn't even know I knew it: "Ayudame!" I called out (help me) and an old man who was gardening at a neighboring house grabbed onto the rope with me. The horse was too strong, it broke free from both us, and trotted further up the road into the oncoming traffic. The old man and I looked at each other and shrugged. "Gracias," I said, and gave him a tender smile. He smiled back, the one remaining tooth in his mouth beaming white. I went back to my car, cried -- for the horse who got away, for the seeming lack of concern for animals here, for the shared smile with the old man -- and then continued on my way.

Seeing my husband cheered me up, the white collar executive who looks as good in Carharts as he does in his grey wool suits. Even more cheering, he asked,"Do you want to see the puppies?"

Two stray female dogs have taken up residence at the construction site, and an American man has become their de facto caretaker. He wasn't able, however, to prevent them from getting pregnant by "Black Joe." All that road kill is replaced by new life. I was about to start humming that Elton John song from "The Lion King."

During my site visit we had been pummeled by an afternoon thunderstorm, common for Northern Mexico at this time of year. The streets had turned into rivers. By the time I found a route with water low enough not to flood my low-clearance VW Beetle the 45-minute drive had taken one and a half hours.

When I was a mile from my house I looked for signs of a dead horse. No, nothing. I can only trust that he was retrieved by his rightful owner who needs to learn to tie a better knot.

Finally, home safely, I rewarded myself for surviving the day. Ah....pie.

I feel much better now. TGIF.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How to Make An Apple Pie in Mexico

I've had so many people ask me for my pie recipe I am finally getting around to posting a step-by-step Show and Tell. The credit for this apple pie-making technique goes to my Mentor of All Things Pie, Mary Spellman, who owned the shop in Malibu where I worked. I don't think I'm broaching any trade secrets here by publishing this. What's important is that people everywhere know how to make pie.

How to bake an apple pie in Mexico, or wherever else you happen to live:

First, trust a Mexican when they tell you your propane tank is empty, otherwise you may turn on the oven and find your baking plans are foiled. The delivery truck arrived in the nick of time.

Proceed to next step.

Turn on some music to suit your mood. (It was 'Cuban Groove' in my case today.) Pour yourself a glass of wine (if it's that time of day). Set up your supplies.
Make sure you have your basic ingredients (as you may be able to see I am running low on sugar). Keep it simple, keep the dishwashing to a minimum. You don't need a food processor! Also, I use a waxy table cloth which I can wipe clean and reuse. (Though if I had marble countertops in my kitchen, I would just roll the dough straight onto the counter.)
You will need: 1 big Pie dish, 2 large bowls, 1 1-cup measuring cup, rolling pin, paring knife, pastry brush, flour, butter, shortening, sugar, salt, cinnamon, ice water, and apples.

Wash your hands, remove your rings and watch, have a towel and wet washcloth ready (in case you need to answer the phone), and be ready to get your hands gooey. Really, it's fun.

For the Dough:

2 and 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup veggie shortening (like Crisco. And for the record, I think real lard makes for too greasy a crust.)
Also add a dash of salt.

Work the "fat" into the flour with your bare hands. Yes, I know a food processor is easier, but then you can't call your pie "hand-made." Sort of squeeze the butter and shortening into the flour until it's the texture of peas. It's okay to have pea-size chunks of butter.

Now, add ice water. Every recipe says add one tablespoon at a time, and they call for some scant amount like a few tablespoons. Well, I like to live on the edge. And, as I've said, I'm not patient. So I just pour a little water in straight from my glass --
screw the measuring spoon. The KEY here is when you mix the water into the dough do it with a LIGHT TOUCH. "Don't manhandle the dough!" as my friend Kathy used to remind me. Add enough water to get the dough a little wet, just short of sticky. And watch those ice cubes! (Of course, you could be more sensible and use chilled water from the fridge, no ice.) Oh, and save the rest of the water, because you might get thirsty later.

It might be hard to see, but this is should be the consistency of your dough after you've added the water. Now this is where most people screw up: what do they do? They manhandle the dough! Leave your Type-A personality at the office and think delicate, feminine thoughts. You are NOT going to knead this dough; it is not bread. You are going to work with it ONLY enough to get it to hold together and formed into two nice, firm discs. If you overwork your dough you will probably be tempted to salvage your efforts by making a trip to the grocery store to buy some frozen, pre-made crust loaded with preservatives and tastes like...never mind. Just TAKE IT EASY on your dough and the rest should go smoothly.

Next, sprinkle flour under and on top of one of your discs. (Technically, you should refrigerate your dough for about a half hour, but I always skip this part. The words 'instant gratification' come to mind...hmm.) You can rub flour on your rolling pin too if your dough is sticky.

It's time to roll. Roll from the center, stretching your disc out in all directions, ONE roll at a time until it is a few inches wider than your pie dish. And the dough should be thin enough where you can almost see the tablecloth pattern through it. Again, don't go crazy! Don't go rolling your pin back and forth and back and forth like your dough is some pottery project. Dough is delicate. Dough needs to be handled with love and tenderness. Dough can be forgiving, but, like in a relationship, dough can only be pushed so far before it wants to break up with you. If, however, it does break, I have some patching tips below.

Meanwhile, if your dough sticks to your rolling pin (or wine bottle, which I use if I don't have a rolling pin), give that sucker a good choke-hold and, in a downward motion, slide the gunk off with your hand.

Also, if dough is sticking to your rolling surface, lift up the dough, scrape the table clean underneath, and sprinkle a little more flour before resuming.

Use the rolling pin (or wine bottle) to lift your dough over to your pie dish. Try to get the dough centered before laying it down.

And, don't worry, it doesn't have to look pretty!

Leave the edges hanging over the sides. It's not time to crimp them yet.

By the way, now is a good time to turn on your oven. Set the temperature to 425 degrees (Farenheit).

Peel the apples -- you should have, on average, about 7 large Granny Smiths, for a generous pie. (In this case, I am using a combo of local je ne sais quoi Mexican apples, smallish ones, and not counting how many. However many it takes to fill my dish is how many I use.)
Save the skins for the horses next door, if you have horses next door. (I just discovered last week that we do.)

Then slice HALF of the apples directly into the pie dish. Yes! Another shortcut! And one less bowl to wash. You don't have to cook them or mix them with the sugar and cinnamon in a separate bowl. The slices should be of a consistent size, not too thin or they will cook too fast and get mushy, not too thick or they won't cook through.

Sprinkle one-half cup of sugar (or less), cinnamon to taste (be careful not to overpower your pie with it), a dash of salt to bring out the fruit's flavor, and about, hmm, let's say, 2 tablespoons of flour to thicken the juice. If this were an exact science it wouldn't be any fun.

Slice the other half of your apples on top of this and repeat the step above by adding a second round of these ingredients (1/2 cup sugar, cinnamon, salt, flour). Add a dollop of butter on top of the pile.

Roll out the second dough disc and lay it on top of the pie-in-progress to cover it. (Not like in the photo, that's just to show you what's underneath.)

Cut off the excess dough, from both the top and bottom crusts, leaving about an inch hanging over the sides. Sometimes I use a scissors for this.)

Save the excess! There are other uses for it. Like patching bad spots like that hole in the top of mine.

Gently squeeze the two dough layers together and roll them under, keeping them together, as you go around the dish. This "roll" should lay against the lip (or rim) of the pie dish.

This is to seal in the juices. And once this baby starts baking, it will be very juicy!

Start crimping. Well, you don't have to. You can leave your edges round like in the step above, but for a fluted edge try this:

Using your thumb and index finger on one hand as a base, push the SIDE of your other index finger into the other fingers with the pie dough in between. Keep moving your fingers around until you've come full-circle.

Oh, that's gonna be so purdy. You know, you can also use a fork and just press the edge down around the rim for another fancy effect. Fast and easy too.

Notice I patched my hole with some daisy artwork. This is why you should never be afraid to make your own pie! Your crust can look like it's headed for disaster with cracks and holes, and you can cover up all the blemishes with a little creativity.

Brush it with a beaten egg and use the knife to punch some slits in the top for ventilation. And put it in the oven.

Bake at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it though so it doesn't get too brown. Ovens vary and baking times too. A sports watch with a timer comes in very handy for baking pie. And everyone thought my waterproof Timex was for triathlons. Ha!

Turn the oven down to 400 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes until the juice bubbles. Poke a knife through one of your air slits on top to make sure apples have softened. But don't bake it so long they turn into applesauce.

Caution: Luscious baking pie scent may attract unwanted neighbors.

Look! The finished product. And it had a little offspring too! See what you can do with that leftover dough?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some apple pie to eat.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cause and Effect: A Pie is Born in Switzerland

I love it when this happens! Eve, my friend in Switzerland, read my blog from the other day about our Skype conversation and the subsequent posting of pictures from our Alps ski week in 2005.

In response, I was greeted with an email in my inbox this afternoon which included this picture of Eve holding an apple pie fresh from her oven in Oberdiessbach!

She writes:

Here is the pie in your dish!
I hope it tastes better then it looks!
We'll have it for dinner soon, I'm already starving...
Big hug, Eve

I couldn't believe it! I was touched, flattered, and, especially, amused. I think the pie looks great. No doubt it tastes wunderbar. And I'm happy she's putting my old dish to good use—even if it took making our story public.

(Re: The Dish—Yes, I use rectangular pie plates sometimes. Oval and square ones, too. Basically I'll use any shallow pan that I can find.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

What to Feed the Worms? Pie, Of Course

It was inevitable. After all, this is Mexico, a country known to Americans (sadly) for its illegal immigrants. A certain group of Mexican aliens made it across the proverbial border and have taken up residence in my stomach. I found a local doctor, recommended by my American insurance company, and visited him about the matter on Friday. He was punctual (impressive considering the reputation of 'Mexican time') and dressed in a denim shirt, Wrangler jeans, and cowboy boots. Um, which way to the ranch? He looked more like a horse vet than a human doc. And he didn't speak English. I've had a total of one month of Spanish lessons, but I managed to explain my ailment to him – as if it needed explaining. All a doctor would have to do is take one look at me (blond hair, blue eyes) and laugh: "Of course, you have a stomach problem. You're a gringa newly arrived in Mexico." He wrote me a prescription for Flagyl, which I read on the Internet after taking it is not approved in the USA because it's known to cause cancer.
Well, this put me in a funk for the whole weekend. The knowledge that worms were burrowing and reproducing in my intestines was bad enough, but the possibility of getting cancer as a result of, dare I make the pie pun, one bad apple put me over the emotional edge. It was enough to make me pick a fight with my husband. Which I did. With great success. Proof: it's Monday and we're still not talking.
My friend Kathy told me, and this was at least 20 years ago, "When you're feeling blue, do something nice for someone else."
So I'm going to take the apples I bought this weekend (see accompanying pics from the trip we made yesterday to San Antonio de las Alazanas and Monterreal, called the "Switzerland of Mexico") and make my husband a pie as a peace offering. I'm sure the worms will enjoy it too.