Saturday, July 18, 2009

Burnt Pecan Pie: It's an Omen

This (see pic above) is what happens when you bake in a propane oven and you run out of gas thirty minutes into the hour-long baking cycle of your pecan pie – the one where you doubled the recipe, used the expensive organic eggs and emptied the bottle of Karo syrup you brought all the way from LA. (Well, you think your pie has baked for thirty minutes but the gas could have given out five minutes after you closed the oven door.)

Because you don’t know how to exchange the empty propane tank for the full one that your landlady, Betty, so kindly delivered to your doorstep to prevent this very incident from happening – and because you don’t have a wrench to loosen the tank fittings, even if you did know which part to unscrew – you take your pie over to the neighbor’s house to use their oven. The neighbor isn’t home so you let yourself in, turn on their oven, take a wild guess at what temperature setting you’ve turned the dial to because there are no numbers on the dial and there is no thermometer, you place the pie inside the oven and then you wait outside on the porch, painting your toenails to pass the time. You don’t account for the fact it’s the hottest part of the day until the polish overheats and gets too gunky to use, and you find yourself at that moment missing, ever so slightly, life in LA where you could be getting a much-needed manicure-pedicure combo in an air-conditioned salon on Main Street, while sitting in a massage chair, all for twenty bucks. (Note to self: Store nail polish in fridge from now on.)

You look at your sports watch, proud that for once you have remembered to start the timer when the pie actually went into the oven and not fifteen minutes later, which is your normal forgetful habit, and since it’s been twenty minutes of baking in the current oven, plus god knows how many minutes in the propane-deprived oven in the other house, you think it’s probably time to check on the pie’s progress.

You enter the house and feel an immediate sense of alarm at the smell of smoke. You open the oven door and become enveloped by a carcinogenic cloud of burnt sugar and egg mixture, which has flowed like lava out from its retaining wall of pie dough and into the neighbor’s once-clean oven. Your eyes burn, you begin to choke, and in spite of this – or because of this --you have the sense to turn on the fan to help clear the air. The fan doesn’t help. You turn your attention back to the burnt sugar lava. While the pecan pie filling is hot it remains in a molten state, but as you attempt to scoop it off the bottom of the oven you find it immediately hardens into a black cement-like substance. In your state of panic you throw the now gunked-up spoon into the sink where you watch the spoon attach itself with superglue force to the aluminum basin and know that will be one more thing to clean -- or more like chisel off -- to remove evidence of your unauthorized pie baking in your neighbor’s house.

You finally get a sense of control, the air has cleared enough to breathe again (even though your clothes will carry the burnt scent for the rest of the day), and you resume the baking of the pie. You think you’ve reduced the oven temperature enough to prevent further burning so you go back outside to paint a second coat of nail polish on your toes, the appearance of which, if you may say so yourself, has already improved after the first coat. About five minutes later you decide it’s the prudent thing to do to check on the pie and when you do you realize you have not turned the temperature down, you have turned it up! Smoke billows out further into the kitchen-that-is-not-your-kitchen while what filling is still left in the pie bubbles away like a witch’s cauldron. You turn the oven dial the other direction and say, “Fuck it, I’ll just leave the oven door open. That should help.”

You know the pie is doomed, yet you figure someone, somewhere may still want a piece, regardless of its over-baked condition. Your Midwest values have taught you not to waste anything. You do have a concern, however, that whoever is brave enough to eat it should know the name of a good dentist, just in case.

You leave the mess in your neighbor’s kitchen as it is, convincing yourself you will return as soon as possible to clean out (chisel out) the oven. But you are so determined that you will succeed in baking a pecan pie today (you have ulterior motives, it’s for a “special friend” you are trying to impress) that you drive five miles to the overpriced convenience store and pray they carry Karo syrup. They do. You happily pay double what you paid for the same bottle in LA and return home. You then call up another neighbor, one who is home, and like a damsel in distress you sweet talk him into coming over with a wrench to swap out your propane tank.

Ignoring the Burnt Pecan Pie Omen -- for that is surely what this is (after all, your “special friend” is married to someone else) -- you begin again. Life's lessons are so hard for you learn.

After a while you notice your neighbor’s car is back in the driveway and realize you’ve forgotten to clean their oven. When you call, you find out your neighbor has been in the hospital all day, and right then you decide, “Well, that’s it. My sick neighbor will be the recipient of the new pie. If it turns out.” As for the burnt one, even the neighbor who fixed your oven takes one look at it and – perhaps aware of its bad karma, as well as its tooth-breaking capabilities – wisely says, “Uh, no thanks.”

MORAL OF THE STORY: Be Careful Who You Bake For. And always have your own wrench on hand.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More International Pie Stories (from Costa Rica this time) and Other Rambling Thoughts on a Hot Texas Afternoon

It’s fun – and can be rather helpful – to have a trademark, something that you love that represents you, something that makes it easy for people to buy birthday and Christmas presents for you. My dad has two signature themes: sailing and martinis, so if you see a pair of socks with embroidered sailboats or martinis you automatically buy them for him. (With five kids buying him presents twice a year – three if you count Father’s Day – you can imagine how full his drawer is with socks.) For my sister it’s anything Harley-Davidson related. For my brother it was frogs – until he redecorated his house last year, pared down his Kermit collection, and therefore put a moratorium on any more frog gifts. For me it used to be daisies, or anything that was the color pink, which often resulted in gifts of – SURPRISE – pink daisies! While I still love daisies (and am still waiting for Prince Charming to buy me a pair of daisy diamond earrings like the ones Melissa got at Tiffany’s…HINT!), daisies have been replaced by pie. Now for gifts people give me pie dishes, aprons, pie books, etc. (please, no pie-shaped diamond earrings!), but I wonder if this pie thing is getting out of control. Whenever someone sees pie they think of me – and then they have to tell me about it. And then I feel compelled to blog about it. And then someone else reads it and emails me their pie story. And I have to share that too. I think you see the pattern forming here. Earlier this week it was Eve in Switzerland. Today it was my brother who is currently in Costa Rica, where he owns a vacation home (which he rents out – contact details here). He writes:

Was thinking of you while on the trip….there is a shortage of apple pie in Playa Negra. There’s a restaurant my friends enjoy going to there. They only make the pie once in a while.
I still like the coconut cream pie in Tamarindo.
[He's referring to Nogui's Sunset Cafe.]

How am I supposed to respond to that? I can’t clone myself and fly to Playa Negra. I have pies to bake here in Texas. My fellow Terlingua residents need me. I have triggered their hunger for pie, and now I have to satiate it.

It doesn’t stop there. Also today, my friend Mariana emailed me from Malibu. She had emailed me on Sunday, offering me a job with the new Web site she’s launching. I had meant to get back to her right away, so when I saw her name in my inbox I thought, “Oops.” (My answer being: “Thank you so much, but I love my pie-baking life in Far West Texas.”) But she wasn’t emailing to remind me about the job. She was emailing me about – yes! – PIE! She had seen Williams-Sonoma advertising “Pocket Pies” and sent me the link. I checked it out right away – what cute little mini-pies these are, like pie sandwiches that you can hold in your hand. Exclusively yours for $17 for two pie molds, plus shipping. (Here's the cherry pie recipe that comes with it, for no extra charge.)

I won’t be ordering them anytime soon, mainly because I like the concept of improvising. For example, I went to buy chocolate chip ice cream for Mimi’s dad when he was visiting last month, and when I asked the convenience store clerk if he had this flavor he came back to me with a container of vanilla ice cream and a bag of chocolate chips. “This is what we do around here,” he said. “We improvise.”

Besides the fact I subscribe to that philosophy, I am also faced with the limitation of having no mailing address where these little pie forms can be sent. UPS will actually deliver to the door of my rock shack – 102 Easy Street. (Amazing to think what kinds of make-shift residences a UPS driver in Far West Texas sees out here – Airstream trailers, lean-tos, straw-bale houses, rock shacks like mine… “We improvise!”) Betty, my landlady, informed me Terlingua didn’t have street names until after 9/11, when residents were forced to declare physical, TRACEABLE addresses. As for receiving mail by post, I haven’t made the commitment to getting my own post office box yet, and a post office box is the only way you can get “real” mail delivered here. That day may come, but with daily temperatures reaching 105 and cooling to a low of 90-something at night (not to mention, the ongoing daily vigilance of avoiding rattlesnakes and the many other venomous creatures I imagine to be lurking in between the rocks of my shack), I’m still holding out on taking any major steps -- like getting a mailbox.
PHOTO CREDIT: John Comte (Thank you for letting me use this without permission!)
Meanwhile, I do have an email address, so in spite of my jabs about being bombarded with pie stories, please know I AM ONLY KIDDING. I want to hear every pie story there is to be told out there. I want to hear about every pie sighting. I want to know every one of your pie-related experiences. I want you to keep thinking of me when you see pie. And, last but not least, I want those daisy diamond earrings!

beth AT bethmhoward DOT com

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Letter -- and Gooseberry Pie Recipe -- from Switzerland

I thought I would share this letter from Eve, my friend from Switzerland who I wrote about in my blog last fall, when I was visiting her. It's a nice reminder that love of pie knows no international boundaries.

Hi Bethli!

It’s good you write a pie blog or else I would believe you’re dead. ;-) You don’t answer my SMS, my email, you are never on Skype anymore... But now I know you’re in the desert, and not bitten by a rattlesnake! It sounds so nice where you live. I would love to visit you, but we’re leaving for Corsica tomorrow, going by sailboat, which is nice too!

I have a pie story for you: Last weekend my friend Lidwine and I visited our friend Caroline in Basel. She lives in this beautiful house with a huge garden. We had a nice barbeque and for dessert we had this wonderful red currant pie. The next day we plundered the rest of the
red currants in her garden. She gave us her recipe, the result of which you can see in the picture. It was delicious!

I doubt you get red currant in your Texas desert, but if you ever get a chance to get some -- even frozen ones will do (I have 3 bags in my freezer!) -- I’m attaching the recipe. It’s in German -- good exercise for you -- I bet you don’t use much of your German out there in the desert!


P.S. The picture shows Lidwine and me in Caroline’s beautiful garden.

La tarte aux groseilles (Johannisbeer-Kuchen)

Ca 500 g rote Johannisbeeren, abgezupft und gewaschen
3 Eigelb
3 Eiweiss
180gr. Zucker
1 btl. Vanillinzucker
130 gr. geriebene Haselnüsse oder Mandeln
2 Löffel Paniermehl
500 gr. Kuchenteig
Fett für die Form und Puderzucker zum bestreuen

Gefettetes Blech mit dem Teig belegen. Eigelb, Vanillezucker und ,100 gr. Zucker/schaumig rühren. Nüsse, Paniermehl und Beeren darunter mischen. Eiweiss mit dem Zucker zu sehr steifem Schnee schlagen, mit der Gabel sorgfältig unterziehen. Die Masse auf dem Teigboden verteilen. Im vorgeheizten Ofen bei 200 Grad 35 Minuten backen. Abkühlen lassen und vor dem Servieren mit Puderzucker bestreuen.
Bei der Verwendung von tiefgekühlten Beeren den Teigboden vordem Füllen mit einer Schicht geriebener Nüsse bestreuen.

Yeah, good luck translating that!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Special Delivery: Rhubarb from a Colorado Garden

Betty, my landlady, knocked on my door yesterday and said, “Jim Carrico called.” Jim is a long-time and well-loved resident of Terlingua. He served as the Superintendent for Big Bend National Park for many years, and later invested in a successful adventure outfitter, Desert Sports. My first reaction to her news was that he had died. The 70-year-old man had suffered a stroke last year. I met him my second week in Terlingua when Betty invited me along on a Sunday rafting trip down the Rio Grande; a group of locals and the owners of Desert Sports would be floating through the famous Santa Elena Canyon. The catch was they were taking Jim Carrico; it would be his first time on the river since his stroke, a stroke which had left him in a wheelchair for months afterward. He could walk – and talk – now, but he would require that we all pay special attention to his needs. Even at 70 he was so handsome, fit and charismatic I paid attention to him alright! What a dashing and lovely man!

PHOTO: From our day in Santa Elena Canyon, May 2009

The reason I thought he might have died was that just a few days earlier Betty had expressed concern about his well being. That’s because he and his wife were driving their truck, camping trailer, dogs and cats from Terlingua to the cooler climes of Colorado -- and Jim would be the sole driver.
It took me a second to realize he wasn’t dead or he wouldn’t have been able to call. Duh! “Is he okay?” I asked, holding my hand over my heart to recover from my nonsensical scare.
“He’s fine. He called to ask if you want some rhubarb from his garden,” Betty continued. “He wanted to know if you would want to use it for pie.”
“He called to offer me rhubarb? I didn’t think he would even remember me.” I was in a different boat on our river trip and the only time we interacted was when I offered him some of my Peanut M&Ms, which as I recall he politely declined.
“He asked if Beth the pie baker was still here and I told him you were,” Betty replied. “Have you ever made a rhubarb pie?”
I laughed. “Yes, when I baked pies in Malibu I used to make strawberry-rhubarb pie for Dick Van Dyke. It was his favorite. One day his wife came in to tell us that Dick didn’t think the pie was sweet enough. I checked the recipe and discovered he was right, I wasn’t adding enough sugar.” Then I asked Betty, “Do you want to drive over to Jim’s together and get the rhubarb?”
Betty looked at me quizzically. “To Colorado?”
“What? He was calling to offer me rhubarb from his garden in Colorado?” My morning coffee must not have fired up my brain cells yet, because I kept getting confused. “Yeah, I guess you can’t really grow rhubarb here in this desert. Is it frozen or what? How is he going to send it to me?”
“I think he’s planning on picking it from his garden and mailing it,” she said.
“Well, please tell him I’d be happy to have it.” I spent the rest of the day buoyed by Jim’s sweet offer. I still shake my head to think that he sees rhubarb in Colorado and it makes him think of me, a newcomer to his hometown and a practical stranger, baking pies in Terlingua. I continue to be baffled – and happily impressed -- by the power of pie and the generosity of people. When the rhubarb arrives I’ll be freezing some so I can make him a pie upon his return. Until then, I’ll be making daily trips to the post office, waiting for his package.