Monday, March 28, 2011

"The Housewife's Magic Wand" and pie-baking tips

I once bought a Swiss-made Bamix mixer, circa the 1950s, on eBay. When the package arrived I laughed out loud at the words on the yellowed box: "The Housewife's Magic Wand." That mixer never worked right ─ I think it needs mechanical help ─ but I keep it. It's a throwback to an era of polka-dotted aprons and women wearing bouffants while baking and vacuuming in heels.
        That's likely the picture that pushed women out of the kitchen for years, for fear they'd be chained to the stove. Even today, women in the workplace resist being associated with the domestic arts because it threatens their career. My friend Marti, an engineer who has returned to school, worked in a male-dominated environment. She told me she'd never bring cookies to work or the guys just wouldn't take her seriously.
        I want to be taken as seriously as anyone else does, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of baking. I confess I'm a bit like the character Ramona in Beverly Cleary's book series, with my mind taking flights of fancy when I get caught up in something. Stirring dough, I imagine myself a pioneer woman, toiling away in a rustic kitchen. Never mind my ingredients would be considered extravagant in pioneer days. The smell of chocolate, brown sugar and vanilla wafting through the house is a time machine back to a time when food was simple and food was life.
        Baking definitely brings satisfaction, but serving up the goods is just as fulfilling. I used to work in the X-ray office of a hospital. No one was particularly happy about dragging themselves into work on weekends and holidays, but a treat like warm chocolate hunk cookies lit up everyone's faces. And honestly, it made me feel special to be able to make people feel good.
        Maybe that's what happened to Kimmer, who's been my buddy for more years than either of us care to announce. I knew her back in the days when the tiny little twig's culinary skills amounted to Taco Bell and ramen noodles. Then one day, completely out of the blue, she began baking the world's best pies. It's like a genie appeared and, poof! Turned her into a domestic diva. Now she gets special requests to bake her legendary pies, even for events she won't be attending.
        The difference between now and the era of the housewife's magic wand, is that women aren't the only ones in the kitchen. When our schedules actually coincide, David and I like cooking together. A couple of months ago we found ourselves tripping down memory lane as he flipped through his cookbooks and found lists, notes and recipes in my handwriting. (I'm better at list-making; he's better at cooking. It works for us.)
        Kimmer may have blossomed into the queen of pies (read her pie-making tips, below) but she's not stuck alone in the kitchen. I've seen her and her hubby cooking side by side. Kudos to the men who can cook and still be manly. We've all come a long way, baby!

Can she bake a cherry pie?
When David requested cherry pie for his birthday, I searched the Internet and went to my friend Kimmer for help, since pie baking isn't my strength. But it was easier than I expected, especially with a store-bought crust which was actually tasty. It'd probably be even better if you made your own crust, but I haven't had the best luck in that department over the years, so I didn't chance it. Kimmer says using butter (or lard) in the bottom of the pie pan with a little flour keeps the bottom crust from getting soggy. I tried it and she's right!

This is a version of a great recipe Diane has posted on her beautiful blog at:

Recipe: Tart cherry pie
2, 12-oz. bags frozen tart cherries, pitted (about 5 1/2 cups, Michigan cherries are perfect)
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon quick tapioca
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 cup sugar (to taste, use less for sweet cherries)
Drop of almond extract
Drop of vanilla
Optional: few drops of lemon juice (especially if you're using sweet cherries instead of tart)

2 refrigerated rolled pie crusts (take each one out of refrigerator about 10-15 minutes before using)
Small amount butter
Small amount flour
Small amount sugar
Small amount turbinado sugar
1 egg white, beaten with a drop of vanilla or lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put the frozen cherries in a bowl. Gently toss with the tapioca, 1 1/4 cup sugar, salt, extracts and (optional) lemon juice. Let stand for 30 minutes.

Lightly butter just the bottom of a large glass pie plate. Sift a very thin layer of flour over the butter before putting the bottom crust in the pan (tip: leave the crust refrigerated until about 5 minutes before you're ready to use it). After the cherry mixture has set for 30 minutes, turn it into the pie crust-lined plate.

Stir together equal amounts of sugar and flour and sift a very light layer over the underside of the top crust before putting it on top of the cherries. Pinch the top and bottom crust together all the way around with your knuckles to seal them together and form a fluted edge. Put a pie ring or strips of foil around the edge of the crust and place it on top of another pan to catch any juices.

Bake at 400 degrees 15 minutes. Turn heat down to 350 degrees and bake another 40-50 minutes. Remove ring; brush with beaten egg white and sift a very thin layer of the sugar-flour mixture over the top. Sprinkle a little turbinado sugar on if you have it. Bake another 10-15 minutes, until top is deep golden brown and inside is bubbly (either the juice will bubble out or you'll see the crust puffing up). Let set 3-4 hours; serve with vanilla ice cream.

It's actually pretty easy to make the pie filling. I just tossed frozen tart cherries with dry tapioca, a little salt and a few drops of almond and vanilla extracts. Then let the cherries stand 30 minutes.

 To keep the bottom crust from getting soggy, grease just the bottom of the pie plate with a thin coating of solid lard or butter. Don't use oil, though. (Thanks Kimmer, this helped!)

 Once the bottom crust is in place, sift a very thin coat of flour over it to help absorb the juice. Kimmer gave me a handy cup with a built-in sifter that worked perfectly. Too bad Pampered Chef doesn't still sell these. You can also dip your thumb and forefinger into flour and rub them together over the pie crust ─ you'll need to do this several times.
Note: I started fluting the bottom crust, but when you're adding a top crust, just wait until it's in place, since you'll pinch them together and flute them anyway.

David's birthday pie. OK, so it's not picture perfect but it was delicious! I learned not to let the crust set at room temperature too long ─ about 10-15 minutes max, depending on room temperature ─ because it's too soft to work with. You can see the edges didn't keep their shape; the top crust even slid down on one side (another reason to butter only the BOTTOM of the pie plate before unrolling the crust). Live and learn. David loved it, though.

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