Pie Shops and Pins

Happy Pi(e) Day!

I have a confession: I once planned to open up a pie business. I mean, who wouldn’t want a pie shop? Pie may just be the perfect food. You can go sweet or you can go savory. You can eat most pies either warm or cold. Or warm with something cold on top – a la mode! You can make it the traditional way – to be eaten with a fork – or fold it in half, crimp the edges, and make it portable. Amish hand pie? Don’t mind if I do. 

There are fruit pies, cream pies, pudding pies, steak and mushroom pies, leek pies, shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pies, quiche anything… You can switch up the crusts, too. Use a pecan crust with your bourbon pumpkin pie or a gruyere infused crust for your tomato pie. Or vice versa. There are just so many options!

Pies are so good there are children’s rhymes about them: Sing a Song of Six Pence, anyone? Little Jack Horner ate what in the corner? Georgie Porgie Pudding and ___? Come to think of it, that would have been an excellent name for a pie shop.

I’m actually quite fascinated with the idea of uncommon and heirloom pie recipes right now, and for some reason I’m especially drawn to custard pies, like Cinnamon Pie and Sugar Pie. I just came across a recipe for a Salted Lavender Honey Pie. Super excited to give that one a whirl.

I recently signed up for a Toastmasters meeting because I do a lot of public speaking in my job, and I think there’s always room for improvement. Don’t you?

I arrive at the meeting site, which turns out to be a Village Inn restaurant up the road from me. I walk past the claw machine and front counter displaying their specialty. Hmm… Pie.

The room is surprisingly full, and I’m immediately accosted by a slim Indian man asking me to sign the guestbook. As I begin to sign, I’m told to bow my head. We pray for various causes. Amen.

I start to sign again but have to stop again to pledge allegiance.

I’m finally able to complete my signature and contact information. It’s official. When I hear the man at the front of the room say that, as the one and only guest, I’ll be asked to give my remarks at the end of the evening. Well, crap.

I find a seat at the front of the room across from a nice looking man with an equally nice looking Rolex.

Maybe this won’t be so bad.

And it’s not. These people are having a blast. They laugh together and cheer each other on. There’s even a game where everyone speaking is supposed to incorporate the Toastmasters word of the night into his or her speech.

I make the mistake of winking at one of the men during a particularly un-amusing speech about seat belts, believing him to be in on the joke. He’s not. And when he raises an eyebrow, seeming to want to take it further, I blink both eyes furiously, pretending there’s something in my eye. A relatively graceful save for both of us, I think.

We come to the constructive criticism part of the night, where we cast votes for the speakers we think did the best job. I say to Mr. Rolex who’s sitting across from me, “Write big, because I’m going to cheat off you.”

He laughs and tells me, “I was going to cheat off you.”

At the end of the night, I stand up to address the room; thanking them for opening up their meeting to me and for making me feel so welcome. I even get a laugh when I tell one of the evening’s judges they call “The Hammer” that he scares the crap out of me.

After I sit back down, a woman at the next table leans back in her chair and whispers to me conspiratorially, “He scares the crap out of the rest of us, too.”

When I get home, I run into my neighbor, Lily, home from her trip to Kansas of all places. We take the dog for a walk, and when she points out an owl perched on a tree branch, I notice the stars are out, suspended and unfaltering against the sky. We walk a little while longer while Lily tells me about her trip. Lily would have fun in a paper bag. She’s that cool.

We get back to my place and end up talking for hours. I tell her about my outing with Toastmasters and my once upon a dream to open a pie shop and hopes for the future. Then I pull myself back in, and remind myself that living in the future or in the past wastes today. Right now, if I’m completely honest, I want to leave the past in the past and just stick a pin in the future, suspend it in the sky, and come back to it when it’s here. It’s not going anywhere. I want to live without lists, resolutions or goals, plans a, b, or c. Whatever will be, will be. It’s so appealing to me, the idea of living in contentment, without expectations, and to even, just for a bit, leave the past unexamined and the future unimagined – an enigma.

Incidentally, that was the Toastmasters word of the night.

You’re a Very Bad Dog Carrot Cake

I grated six cups of carrots yesterday. (I did this by hand because the truth is, there are times I’m too lazy to pull out the food processor yet not too lazy to grate a bunch of carrots by hand. It makes not a bit a sense to me either.) The grated carrots soaked in one cup of brown sugar overnight. I hydrated jumbo raisins in pineapple juice. I used four eggs, three cups of flour and one-and-a-half cups of sugar – all organic. I beat together, by hand so that the frosting wouldn’t get too soft, eight ounces of cream cheese, a stick of butter, two teaspoons of vanilla, and two-and-a-half cups of powdered sugar – sifted. I even pulled out the cute little designer paper liners to distinguish from nuts and no nuts. I made a complete mess of my teeny, tiny kitchen that I suspect was actually built for pixies and in which I have a total of twenty-four inches of counter space.

Result: eighteen perfect standard-sized carrot cake cupcakes with walnuts and twenty-four mini carrot cake cupcakes without. I packed up six of the larger cupcakes crowned with mounds of cream cheese frosting and walked them down the street to Dog’s Girlfriend’s house to give to her family. I didn’t take Dog with me because I couldn’t see me making it down my driveway with a tray of cupcakes in one hand and a hundred-pound Lab at the end of a leash in the other.

After I dropped off the cupcakes without incident and walked home, I went into the kitchen to find ten mini-cupcakes on the cooling rack instead of the twenty-three that were there when I left.

The cupcake thief left no crumbs or any of those cute little paper liners anywhere. I’m telling you, CSI wouldn’t be able to find a thing.

Dog is in his room.

Carrot Cake
6 C grated carrots
1 C brown sugar
1 C raisins
1 C crushed pineapple, well drained (reserve juice)
4 eggs
1 C vegetable oil
1 ½ C sugar
2 t vanilla extract
3 C flour
2 t baking soda
½ t salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 C chopped walnuts

GREASE and flour two 10- or three 8-inch cake pans.

COMBINE carrots and brown sugar in a medium bowl or large Ziploc bag. Let sit for at least an hour. Add raisins. You can plump up the raisins in warm water, rum, some of the juice from the crushed pineapple or all three. I threw it all in a Pyrex cup and heated it in the microwave for a minute on high and let it sit for a bit before draining the raisins and adding them to the carrots and brown sugar.

DRAIN the carrots, too, after you add the raisins to the carrots, or your cake will end up a big squishy mess. Press out as much of the extra juice as you can with a wooden spoon or whatever you have on hand.

BEAT the eggs and then add oil, sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla in a REALLY big bowl. Mix in pineapple. In a medium bowl combine flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Gradually add to egg mixture. Stir in carrots and raisins. Fold in walnuts. Pour into prepared pans.

BAKE at 350 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes or until the cake springs back to the touch or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Let cool completely before frosting.

As for the frosting…

Cream Cheese Frosting
½ C butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 ½ C powdered sugar
2 t vanilla extract

COMBINE butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla in a medium-sized bowl.

BEAT until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Don’t overdo it!

This frosting is so awesome that you’ll want to lick the beaters. Just be sure to turn off the mixer first… Alternately, you can do as I do: mix it by hand and just lick the spoon. Less call for stitches that way.

My Very First Cookbook

At nineteen, I was a young mother living in Honolulu, Hawaii far away from the farm my parents owned in western Vermont. At this point in my life, and I suppose in the lives of many teenagers, I ate a lot of fast food and a whole lot of takeout. I also remember eating something called a plate lunch which basically just a plate or styrofoam container piled high with some type of prepared meat, white rice, and – inexplicably – macaroni salad. These were truly delicious and, beyond the blueberry pancakes from the now closed Kelly’s diner and the scrambled eggs with Portuguese sausage from – of all places – McDonald’s, they remain some of my fondest food memories from my time in our 50th state.

During a bout of homesickness, I remember wanting something decidedly un-Hawaiian and, since this was before the Internet, I called my mother for the recipe for beef stew. On a side note, Hawaii doesn’t recognize Daylight Savings, which means that depending upon the time of year, the time difference between Hawaii and Vermont is either five or six hours. I called my mom sometime in the evening Hawaiian time, and that’s how just a week or so later, I got my very first cookbook – in the mail from my mom.

By the time the cookbook arrived, I of course had already moved past that longing for beef stew and had moved on to the next thing. Still, the cookbook has come in handy over the years, first as a reminder to check the time before I pick up the phone, and because so many of the family favorites I still make came straight from the stained and dog-eared pages of this book. We even ended up making that beef stew, the recipe for which I’ve adapted over the years to make my own.

Beef Stew

2 T all-purpose flour
1 lb beef stew meat
2 T cooking oil
3 C vegetable juice cocktail
15 oz San Marzano-style tomatoes, drained
1/2 C chopped onion
1 C beef broth or stock
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp minced thyme
1 tsp crushed red pepper, optional
2 1/2 C cubed, peeled potatoes
2 C sliced carrots
1 C sliced celery
1 tsp fresh basil, rough chopped

Place flour in a plastic bag. Add meat cubes, a few at a time, shaking to coat. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven brown meat, half at a time, in hot oil. Return meat to saucepan. Add tomato juice, tomatoes, onion, beef broth, garlic, thyme, and crushed red pepper. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover; simmer 1 to 1 1/4 hours for beef or till meat is nearly tender. Add potatoes, carrots, and celery. Cover; simmer 30 minutes more. Skim fat. Add basil. Spoon into bowls and serve with warm, crusty bread.

Serves 4.

Grandpa’s Apple Pie

My grandfather was an MP in WWII and a postman in Brooklyn in the 1940’s. When I knew him, he had long since retired and had a head full of white hair. I remember watching him make this pie when I was still too little for the top of my head to reach the top of the formica countertop in my grandparents’ kitchen.

He told me once that the key to this pie is to let the apples sweat for a bit before you put the pie together. At the time, I didn’t understand why that was important, but like a lot of things he told me over the years, it stuck with me.

Grandpa spent more time teaching me about cooking than anybody else, and for me cooking and family go hand-and-hand. Cooking was quality time. It was always about learning. It was about bonding and, yes, to me cooking grew to represent love. So I think it’s fitting that I begin this blog on Valentine’s Day (which is, coincidentally, my birthday) with this recipe from one of the men who loved me first.

I find dimes from time-to-time. Always dimes. I find them on the ground when I’m outside on walks, around the house. I find them in parking lots. And I’m not sure why, but I swear they’re from my grandfather.

Grandpa, you are missed.

Note: This recipe is written below as it was published in our family cookbook, and while Spectrum makes an organic shortening that I’ve used with very good results, I prefer a butter crust with this recipe. I’ve always, always used Martha’s recipe with excellent results every.darn.time. 

In any case feel free to experiment and, of course, your favorite double pie crust recipe will work in place of my grandfather’s – I promise you that he would not have been offended. My grandmother now… that’s a story for another day. If you don’t have a favorite pie crust, just double the recipe for my fav, or perhaps you’d like to try this one and let me know how it comes out. 


Grandpa’s Apple Pie

2 1/4 C All purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3/4 C plus 2 T shortening
1/3 C cold water
Cut in 2/3 of the shortening until mixture is like corn meal. Cut in remaining 1/3 of shortening until mixture resembles large peas. Sprinkle water, 1 tablespoon at a time, while tossing with a fork. Add only enough water to make mixture cling together. It should not be wet or slippery. Divide dough in half. Roll out each half on a floured surface.

3 lbs MacIntosh apples, peeled, cored, sliced, and sprinkled with lemon
2 T cinnamon
3/4 C sugar
pinch salt
1 T butter

Coat apples with cinnamon-sugar-salt mixture in a large bowl. Place one half of the prepared crust in bottom of pie plate or tin. Fill bottom crust with apples. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust and poke with a fork to vent steam.

Bake in an oven heated to 425 degrees for about 40 minutes. Lower heat slightly if pie is browning too fast.