Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Holy Cannoli! 7th Anniversary Pie

Seven years ago, I married the love of my life.
I vividly remember readying myself in the bride's room of the chapel at my parent's Presbyterian church - repeatedly adjusting my veil as I eagerly counted down the minutes until I officially became "Mrs. Pollock." So, I was a bit surprised when our pastor, Dan Shields, who had come to pray with me before the ceremony, commented that I was perhaps the calmest bride-to-be he had ever counseled.

Funny. It hadn't even occurred to me to be nervous. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was making the right decision in the man I was marrying. In all honesty, I likely knew about ten months earlier - only two or so months into our dating relationship. So, no - nerves were definitely not on my radar.
While I wasn't nervous, I was giddy - giddy to begin our married life together. And seven years later, Will still makes me giddy. Giddy when I know we have a rare kid-free date night approaching...giddy to explore new places, restaurants and cities with my best friend...and giddy to take on new phases of life side by side. For better or for worse, through richer and poorer, in sickness and in health...
I have mentioned before that my husband, Will, is not much of a dessert guy. For him, there are only a handful of items on the dessert menu that even warrant a second glance - namely cheesecake, brownies and cannoli. When Will and I were first married, we used to drive nearly a half hour just to get freshly piped cannoli from our favorite Italian deli. Well, that deli has long since closed and our crazy lives as parents rarely allow for craving-induced travel. So, when I stumbled upon a recipe for a pie inspired by a cannoli, I knew I had to make a version of it for my sweetheart - Holy Cannoli! 7th Anniversary Pie.

I began by preparing the chocolate pie crust, working cubes of cold butter into the flour, powdered sugar, cocoa powder and salt. I added egg yolks and vanilla extract, kneading the dough until it came together in a sticky chocolate mass. Then, using my fingertips, I pressed the dough into an even layer in the bottom of a greased and floured pie dish.
While the crust chilled, I prepared the cannoli filling, using ricotta that had been drained overnight in cheesecloth. To the cheese, I added more powdered sugar, grated in a small amount of orange zest for brightness and stirred in a couple of handfuls of mini chocolate chips. After all, Will's favorite cannoli are those dipped in chocolate.
In a separate bowl, I whisked heavy cream and powdered sugar until it came together in an icing-like consistency. Using a spatula, I gently folded the icing into the ricotta mixture.
Removing the cooled crust from the fridge, I pricked the bottom with a fork, lined it with foil and used dried beans as weights. Halfway through the blind baking, I removed the beans and wrapped the exposed pie edges in foil to keep them from burning. 

To add texture to the top of the pie, I finely chopped a handful of pistachios (another of Will's favorites) and tossed them with the remaining chocolate chips.
Finally, for the layering. I slathered the cooled, baked crust with a rich, thick layer of ricotta cannoli filling and sprinkled the entire bowlful of nuts and chocolate over the top. Cannoli heaven!
I am so blessed that God has given me such a wonderful partner, husband, best friend and father to my children. When so many couples around us are experiencing their version of the seven year itch, I wake up every morning confident in the life and love that we have cultivated together. Through it all - the births and deaths, successes and disappointments, train rides and tantrums, beards and pie blogs - I am so lucky to have my best friend by my side. Happy 7th anniversary, baby!

"I cannoli love you."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Miss Jamie's Perfectly Preschool Peaches and Cream Pie

Wilson began asking about preschool shortly after his third birthday. The conversation went something like this: 
Me: "Why do you want to go to preschool, sweetheart?"
Wilson: "Because my teachers at church ask if I do."
Me: "And what do you say?"
Wilson: "I say no, but I want to say yes."

Well, this totally threw me for a loop. Honestly, I hadn't given preschool much thought. As a stay at home mom and "retired" child development specialist, I had always made a special effort to provide a range of social opportunities through play dates and special outings to fun places in our community. We were even learning the alphabet one letter a week - complete with corresponding snacks, art projects, books and field trips. But, it was clear Wilson was feeling left out. It wouldn't hurt to just look, right?

So, I booked lots and lots of preschool tours, starting with those closest to home and/or recommended by friends. Hunting down the perfect school for my little guy became a part-time job, and I did not take it lightly. Heck, I had separation anxiety on the rare occasion that we left him with grandparents for a couple of hours. Trusting total strangers with my flesh and blood was going way out of my comfort zone.

Right off the bat, I could rule out most schools due to one of three factors: high student-teacher ratios, poor classroom behavior management (read: utter chaos) and daycares masquerading as preschools. Together, Wilson and I toured everything from Montessori to parent participation. We even stumbled upon one school that was held in a set of old train cars. (That was a contender for Wilson - let me tell you.) But, none seemed just right. 

Then, we went to Warner's Granite Bay Country Day School. The school's director, Miss Barbara, showed Wilson and I around the beautifully landscaped grounds - complete with a playground, flower garden, and even goats and horses. The classrooms, too, were perfectly warm and homey. But, what I was most impressed by were the compassionate, nurturing teachers. It was the kind of school I would want to go to if I was a preschooler.

I knew I had found Wilson's school. But, he was still so little. Will and I began telling Wilson that he could go to the "Horse Preschool" when he was four years old. And, wouldn't you know it, the day after his fourth birthday, as I was tucking Wilson into nap, he said, "Now that I am four, you should call my preschool and see if they are ready for me." Darn, he had remembered.

So, I called Miss Barbara to see if they still had an opening in the Tuesday/Thursday afternoon class. They did and I scheduled a meet and greet with Wilson's soon to be teacher, Miss Jamie. It was starting to feel real. Too real. But, Wilson couldn't wait.

I have to admit, I was looking for any possible reason to back out of this whole preschool thing - Wilson's shyness...a young, overwhelmed teacher...even a classroom bully. Anything. But, I couldn't find a thing. In fact, I instantly liked Miss Jamie. She had such a warm and loving way of leading the kids.

She happily let Wilson participate in a full day's class to see if it was a good fit. Initially, Wilson hung close to me, as expected. But, eventually, he ventured off to play with the other children, have snack and even work on writing his letters. It was all going so well, I called Will to stop by and meet Miss Jamie after work.

So, it was decided. Wilson would begin preschool right after Christmas break. Although I tried to be strong and positive in front of him, I was petrified to let him out of my sight. As I watched him settle in on his first day of preschool, I was both proud and melancholy. 
Seeing the independent big boy that he was becoming was bittersweet. I probably stayed only ten minutes or so before Wilson was ready for me to head out. Miss Jamie seemed to understand when I fought back tears as I kissed him goodbye, assuring me that she would call if he cried or in any way needed me. With her kindness, I didn't feel judged for being less ready for school than Wilson.
Over the five months that Wilson has attended Warner's, I have grown to appreciate so many wonderful things about the school, and most importantly, Miss Jamie. In the way that only a preschool teacher can, she greets us every afternoon with a permanent, yet genuine smile, and affectionately refers to Wilson as "Love." I never feel rushed during drop off or pick up, as she always seems to have a little extra time for us.

Knowing that Wilson's teacher is a mommy herself is hugely comforting. Her maternal nature has given me nothing but confidence in her ability to manage Wilson's "quirks." She is patient and understanding of his slowness to warm and always makes sure to tell me when he has a social breakthrough with his peers. When I dropped Wilson off with an inhaler this past spring because he insisted he absolutely could not miss preschool following an asthma attack, she didn't even blink an eye. And when all of the other children were having pink Valentine's Day milkshakes, she remembered his strawberry allergy and bought him vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup so he wouldn't feel left out. 

But, most importantly, Wilson adores Miss Jamie. He says she is the best teacher in the whole world - and that is really something when your Daddy is a teacher! Wilson wakes up every morning eager to see Miss Jamie and his classmates, asking with hopeful anticipation, "Is it a preschool day?"
So, for making preschool a little less scary and a whole lot more sweet for both Wilson and I, how about a slice of Miss Jamie's Perfectly Preschool Peaches and Cream Pie?

I began in the morning by prepping and chilling my pie dough, as usual. However, this time I came armed with a secret weapon - "fluffing." (Intimidating, I know.) This technique has you add small amounts of ice water while simultaneously using your fingers to lift and sift, rather than squeeze, the dry ingredients. This one simple word has revolutionized the making of pie dough for me.
I rolled out the dough, settled it into the pie tin and crimped the edges before lining the crust with tin foil and weighing it down with dried beans. Halfway through the blind baking, I removed the weights and continued baking for another ten minutes until just golden.
While the crust cooled, I prepared the "cream" a la "peaches and cream" - vanilla custard. My favorite little sous chef, Wilson, whisked the sugar, cornstarch, milk and egg mixture until boiling - with a good amount of supervision, of course. Once thickened, I added vanilla extract and butter before straining it through a sieve. We then filled the pie shell with the custard and placed it into the fridge to cool.
Then for the second layer of flavor - the peaches. I blanched several peaches before transferring them to an ice bath in an attempt to remove the skin without mangling the fruit. I sliced the peeled peaches into small wedges, tossed them with cinnamon and sugar, sautéed the fruit until tender and added a cornstarch slurry to thicken. Once cooled, I topped the custard pie with a generous layer of peach filling.
For the final layer, I prepared a homemade whipped cream (cream #2, in case you're counting). I whisked heavy cream, powdered sugar and vanilla extract into soft peaks and slathered a thick, fluffy white layer over the entire pie. Then, back into the fridge to set. As I tidied the kitchen, Wilson busily licked the whisk. Then, with a huge smile, he turned to me and said, "This is my favorite part of baking with you, Mommy." A boy after my own heart.
As a mother, sending my firstborn to preschool has been an emotional roller coaster. I've experienced everything from sadness at his readiness to chart new territory without me by his side to pride in his academic and social accomplishments. But, having a teacher as trustworthy, loving and compassionate as Miss Jamie has made the transition so much smoother. 

When I asked Wilson why Miss Jamie was special to him he said, "She loves me and she is the best teacher ever. Oh, and I really like the snacks she gives me." Well, finally, a snack just for Miss Jamie. Thank you for all you have done for us this year. We can't wait to see you next fall.

"An apple is an excellent thing - until you have tried a peach." - George du Maurier

Friday, June 1, 2012

Blue Ribbon Hopefuls and Humble Pies

This past year, our family has made a conscious effort to pursue the simpler life (read beard competitions, raising our own backyard chickens and, of course, learning to bake pie). And what's more wholesome than a good old-fashioned pie competition?
So, a month or so ago, when Will stumbled upon the competitions web page for the Sacramento County Fair, I knew I had to enter. After some debate, I registered in both the "One Crust" and "American as Apple Pie" categories, plopping down my piddly $2 entry fee for a chance to compete in the most homespun contest known to man (or woman, in this case).

My one crust entry was a simple enough decision - I opted to revisit an old friend, Chocolate Pecan Pie. Having made this recipe twice before, I felt confident in both it's taste and presentation. Plus, I had just read an article naming apple, pumpkin and pecan as the top three pies among Americans. This is not to say that I felt at all confident that I would place. With a measly three months of pie baking under my belt, the possibility of a ribbon was not even on my radar. I was just hoping not to be laughed right out of the County Fair.
I hand-delivered my entry in a plain brown cardboard box, without all the usual Bake Somebody Happy bells and whistles. As we approached the gate at Cal Expo and made our way to Building C, I nearly backed out at the thought that complete strangers would soon be eating, discussing and judging the merits of my humble pecan pie. But, as I entered the building and approached the table of three harmless, smiling women waiting to take my entry, the butterflies in my tummy settled. The leader of the group, an older gray-haired lady in an apron, handed me my receipt while another offered a supportive, "Good luck."
Then, all I could do was wait...

We had planned to spend our family day at the County Fair on Sunday, the third day of the fair. But, as opening day came to a close, I could no longer stand the suspense. So, we packed up the boys with promises of fried foods on sticks, and once again drove out to the fairgrounds. As I entered the competitions building, I caught a glimpse of my pie, minus a slice or two, perched proudly atop a display case across the length of the room. And, what was that sitting beside it? As I neared the table, my hopeful suspicions were confirmed. I had earned a second place ribbon! I felt instantly validated that I was indeed learning my craft and, perhaps more importantly, sending my friends edible pies. I was giddy with delight! This time, I had baked myself happy!
But, I still had one more competition to go - the American as Apple Pie category. After carefully considering the simplicity implied by the competition's title, I chose to resist the frills and distractions of my Boozy Caramel Apple Pie and settled instead on a variation of my first ever pie. I really wanted the sweet, juicy apples and homey comfort of the traditional cinnamon and sugar flavors to speak for themselves. So, I set to work rolling the dough, preparing the dry ingredients and slicing the apples with the wonderfully vintage peeler/corer my mother had found stashed in the back of her kitchen cabinet.
But, just as I laid the second crust atop the bulging heap of seasoned apples, Will walked into the kitchen and said, "You know that's not how you did it last time, right?" My heart sank. He was right. Whereas last time I had simply added decorative apple silhouettes to the solid crust, I now had three gaping apple-shaped holes in the crust itself. But, it looked so pretty and I was confident in the flavors, so I crimped the edge and forged on.
Well, what looked so lovely going in the oven came out an unfortunate mess. The crimping had sagged unevenly, juices bubbled and drizzled down the side and jagged slices of fruit protruded from the misshapen apple holes. I went to bed that night resolving to remake the pie the following day.

But, sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 am, as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, I decided that I didn't really need to enter the apple pie category at all. I had already surpassed any expectations I had of competing with my pecan pie's second place finish. Quit while I was ahead, I told myself.

But, that plan came to a screeching halt the following morning when Wilson pointed to my misshapen pie cooling on the counter and asked if this was the pie for "Mommy's contest." Will replied that we were probably going to eat this pie instead, to which Wilson responded very matter of fact, "No, Mommy has to do the contest." And with that, I set my sights on another full day of baking. As much as I wanted to call it quits, the parent in me saw this as an opportunity to put into practice the very lessons we had been trying to instill - not giving up and keeping your word.

This time, I had a little extra help in the kitchen, as Will and the boys cored and sliced the apples for me. As I slid the second apple pie into the oven, I kept my fingers crossed. And when I pulled it out nearly an hour later, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was gorgeous! Not just acceptable, but quite possibly the most attractive pie to ever come out of my kitchen. I was both eager and proud to deliver my final entry the following day.
So, once again, I carried in the familiar brown cardboard box and handed it over to the pie powers that be. Only, this time, the judging was live. I was a bundle of nerves watching the oddly paired judges take minuscule bites of each of the entries - first the filling, then the crust - before retreating to a back room to confer. With my breath held, I watched the judges lay their ribbons next to the first, second and third place entries. I was completely humbled. While I had indeed earned another ribbon, third place in a field of three pies stung a bit. Last place pie.
All in all, my first Sacramento County Fair pie experience was a roller coaster of highs and lows. On one hand, I was proud and delighted with my chocolate pecan's surprising second place finish. On the other, I helped myself to a huge serving of humble pie with a defeat by not one, but two, failed apple pies.
But, as I sat with good friends later that weekend and watched them happily take bite after bite of my apple pie gone awry, I found reassurance that the real satisfaction in all of this is baking for those I love. The muffled "mmmm's" between forkfuls of pie and the full sink of empty plates afterward are ultimately better than any ribbon. And, I guess it's good for all of us to eat a little humble pie every once in awhile.

"If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."
- Carl Sagan