Fall is my favorite time of year, not just because I get to turn my clocks back or snuggle by the fire with a good book and hot cocoa, but mostly because Fall is the time of year hearty cooking makes it back into our kitchens.
When I was a kid, my mother kicked off the Fall season with her Halloween supper of “Spook Soup”, “Goblin Biscuits” and “Witches Pie”. She would set the table using big autumn leaves, flying ghosts and black cats. Linens were the colors of cinnamon, butternut and spice.
In the middle of the table was a big ceramic pumpkin she had made in her weekly ceramic class. She would ladle steaming homemade potato and leek soup into the life size pumpkin, garnish it with bacon and parsley and present it to her brood of six. Her Bisquick biscuits were hot and fluffy and drenched in butter and Aunt Gladys’s homemade pepper jelly, spicy and sweet and savory, all in one full mouth bit!
And the pie… oh, how we loved my mother’s pie! I remember standing next to her when I was eight years old, learning her secret to a perfect crust…
“Make sure your butter and lard are good and cold. If you use all butter your crust will burn and if you use all lard your crust won’t be flaky and if you touch it too much it will react like a banana you’ve tossed around the room, it will get mushy and have no oomph.”
“And when you roll out the dough,” she continued, “make sure you don’t use your rolling pin like a weapon and beat up the dough. Be firm, and make each movement count, because if you roll it too much it will be tough as your Uncle Bill’s shoe leather. Keep your pastry board dry, cool and sparing of flour.”
I have followed those instructions to the “T” every time a make a pie crust and without fail, my dough is light, flaky and melts into the corners of my mouth. And I am happy to say my own daughter has perfected her pie crust as well, finishing off each perfect round with a scalloped edge.
But it wasn’t always that way…… I remember the Thanksgiving I volunteered to make the pies, and so does everyone else in my family.
I fancied myself as a somewhat gifted cook, what I failed to realize was I was no Martha in the kitchen when it came to measuring, better known as baking. I have since come to terms with my impatience when it comes to the art of baking and now more times that not I leave it up to my good friends at Douce France in Palo Alto where seven days a week I can get perhaps the best fresh fruit tart, decedent double chocolate something or rathers and enjoy every bit as if I had slaved hours over a double boiler.
No, I am not a baker, I am a cook.
It all started with a pound of flour, a bit of salt and way too much water. It was my sister Debbie’s year to host Thanksgiving, she and my entire family had gone out for the afternoon and I had full run of the kitchen. Clad in my festive autumn apron, Mozart filling the air with melody, I began my preparation:
2-1/2cups all purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 lb. chilled unsalted butter
1/3 plus of ice cold water
Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it is that consistency of cornmeal. Then gradually add cold water, a bit at a time, tossing gently with a fork. When it sticks together, press into two balls, cover and refrigerate.
Sounds easy enough… but as I added the water from the measuring cup a bit at a time, it slipped out of my hand and landed, measuring cup and all, into the bowl filled with flour.
Uh-oh…that’s okay, I simply will add more flour…
And so began what I call “The Perfect Bowl of Cereal” Too much milk leads to more cereal which leads to more milk which leads to more cereal…ad in·fi·ni·tum.
By the time my family returned, I had made six pies, all of which I threw away. I made three trips to the grocery store, changed the recipe from The Joy of Cooking to Better Homes and Gardens to Betty Crocker Baking Basics and back again to The Joy of Cooking. It was however, no “Joy”!
My autumn apron was covered in pumpkin, globs of rejected dough stuck to the floor like gum on a sidewalk, every cupboard door was fingerprinted with flour and mincemeat and I looked like the Michelin Man exploded all over me!
My brunette hair was covered in a layer of fine flour and I was standing over another ill fated pie, crying, when my father came to the kitchen… He put his hand on my shoulder and patted it lovingly, like you would a son or daughter that just broke up with their first boyfriend or girlfriend. “It’s okay honey, there’s a Bakers Square not far from here…” I wailed, got my car keys, drove to Bakers Square and with great culinary humility and relief I bought three pumpkin pies, one mincemeat and my dad’s favorite — a big, fresh, apple pie.
The best part of that day… laughing and eating pie with my family. And in the end, throwing the pie plates away, instead of the pie.
So this holiday season, who cares if the pies don’t turn out or if the turkey is a little dry, there has to be a Douce France or a Bakers Square nearby. And we all know gravy was always intended to make all things which are dry, moist again. Just remember to laugh, and as my Aunt Phyllis always said, “Get them good and hungry, give them a stiff drink when they come in the door, and everything will taste delicious!”
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