[Seems to be "dessert week" on DDD! Here's another healthy recipe for you today, the second in a trio of "good for you" desserts that can all be served up to those you love for Valentine's Day: the first was Butterscotch Pudding that can improve heart health; and the final installment is coming up on Thursday with a beautiful, decdadent, traditional V-Day treat revamped to be super-quick and healthier. Be sure to come back and check that one out, too!]
I’ve never really understood the expression, “easy as pie.” In the home of my childhood, it was more like “almost-unheard-of-plus-totally frustrating-and-usually-botched-results” as pie. Although my mom was a superlative baker, the one thing she almost never made (and when she did, it wasn’t very good) was pie. Give her a cookie dough, and she could nail it; a chiffon cake was her speciality; and cheesecake–no problem. But pie crust somehow eluded her.
As a result, neither one of my sisters nor I excel at pie or pie crust. In fact, the only pie my mother ever baked was called “Chocolate Dream Pie,” and as I recall, and it consisted of one ready-made storebought crust filled with chocolate cake batter and baked. In other words, the only pie in her repertoire was actually a cake.
My mom’s sister, Auntie M, on the other hand, a former caterer who excelled in the kitchen well into until her final years-well, she could bake anything.
Like so many pairs of sisters, my mother and aunt were more dissimilar than alike. Mom was softspoken, with a quiet, murmuring voice and (despite her hefty weight) a delicate frame, with tiny ankles and wrists. Her thin, fine hair was the color of wax beans. Auntie M, in contrast, was taller and broad, with sturdy legs thick as telephone poles. Her height was enhanced by the towering beehive of coarse, mahogany hair; her gravelly voice was both commanding and insistent, paired with an easy laugh and an equally easy tendency to criticize. My mother, the younger, was also “the pretty one,” while Auntie M was more what used to be described as a “Handsome” woman (think Mrs. Doubtfire with dark hair). Tough on the outside, she rarely revealed an inner softness, like a cautious turtle peeking out of its shell only when every possible threat is removed.
At once assertive and strong, Auntie M embodied the concept of pure domesticity, yet without even a whiff of the usual sense in which women are considered domestic. She was an archetypal feminist, one who encouraged independence, intelligence, strength and self-sufficiency all within the realm of marriage–and I believed she could accomplish anything. I idolized her, and in many ways wanted to be her (well, minus the shapeless legs).
When I was about 16, I spent a couple of weeks living at my aunt’s house after she had broken her arm. While ostensibly there to help her keep up with housework, my role as her personal assistant quickly morphed into culinary protégé as well. It was under her tutelage that I first learned about mis en place (though of course she didn’t call it that), which I had never encountered before; she also taught me about professional wash-up technique, filling one sink with soapy water, the other with clear and washing the least-dirtied dishes and utensils (such as glasses or cutlery) first, reusing the water for the more grimy pots and pans at the end. I discovered how rotating your baking pans halfway through the cooking time helps to compensate for uneven oven heat, allowing for a smooth, even top to cakes and breads; how sifting flours helps to aerate and separate out impurities like pebbles or bran; and how using an ice cream scoop creates perfectly measured, uniformly sized cookies.
During those two weeks, Auntie M also taught me something I’ve retained to this day: that there is no age limit on silliness. Along with the baking (and cleaning, and reading, and cleaning, and knitting–and cleaning) I spent many hours beside her in the den, watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was a side of her I’d never known existed, and I loved hearing her guttural, spontaneous guffaws as Bugs massaged Elmer Fudd’s bald head, directed opera singer Giovanni Jones to sustain his note beyond the bounds of reality, or infuriated Elmer with his trademark quip, “What’s Up, Doc?” Even though my role during those two weeks was basically a cross between orderly and scullery maid, that visit remains one of my most cherished memories with my aunt.
The one thing that Auntie M never got round to teaching me, unfortunately, was how to bake a pie (though I have no doubt that, if she had, it would have been stellar). After years of promising myself that I’d tackle the skill on my own, I suddenly switched to gluten-free baking a few years back, which means that most of my crusts are now “pat-in” versus “roll-out.” (Though if you’re looking for a good rollable GF pie crust, you must try the one I used in this tortière, which I found on Maggie’s blog). As a result, I still have a bit of an irrational aversion to making pie crust (though I did manage to create two fabulous crusts for the upcoming cookbook).