Friday, July 27, 2012

Fair-ly Good Showing

This past week found me buzzing around our kitchen, my apron tied around my waist and my hands covered in flour, whipping up bowlfuls of pie dough, graham cracker crust, chocolate pudding, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Never before had my kitchen seen such a whirlwind of activity. Three pies in two days was a tall order, but as I rolled dough, stirred custards and whisked caramels, I felt centered. For a brief moment, I even found myself daydreaming of opening my own little bake shop, but quickly thought better of the early morning hours.

After getting my feet wet at the county fair earlier this year, I had gotten a taste for competition. And in my neck of the woods, it didn't get more competitive than the California State Fair. I decided to try my luck with not one, but three entries in three separate pie divisions: "Mint to Be" Thin Mint Pie in the creme pie class, Not Your Mama's Chocolate Pecan Pie in the custard pie class and Boozy Caramel Apple Pie in the non-refrigerated single crust class.
I found comfort in the remaking of familiar recipes, with only minor changes made for competition purposes. I was a kid in a candy store when I stumbled upon a freezer full of pork leaf lard at a specialty meat company during a recent trip to San Francisco. Sure enough, a blind taste test of my usual Crisco crust and the lard-based crust revealed a clear winner - husband and neighbors voted unanimously for the lard. So, both my chocolate pecan and caramel apple pies received a pre-competition crust upgrade.

I also chose to pipe my whipped cream atop the thin mint pie this go around. A bit of practice with the piping bag and a careful selection of just the right sized star tip resulted in a creme pie the likes of which my kitchen had never seen. 
At the end of day two of baking, as I surveyed my pie bounty, I headed to bed with an unsettling combination of exhaustion, pride, satisfaction and nerves. 
I arrived at the fair nearly an hour before the gates opened on the morning of the judging. As I precariously stacked all three pie boxes and carried them from my car into the Foodstyle Building, I silently sent up a little prayer that I would not trip and fall. Thankfully, I approached the registration table with pies intact and signed for each entry. Now, it was in the judges' hands.
Will and I returned to the fair with our participant admission tickets in hand, and were thrilled to score front row, center seats to the baked goods judging. But, eager anticipation soon gave way to restless boredom as the panel of judges assessed all types of quick breads, scones, muffins, coffee cakes, cupcakes, cakes and tarts. Each of the four judges were painstakingly thorough - assessing consistency, texture, color, shape and smell before actually tasting each baked good for flavor. 
Let me tell you, six hours is an awfully long time for your bum to tolerate a wooden bench. But, the moment the judges reached for the microphone to describe and judge one of my entries, the hours of waiting seemed like a distant memory.
First up, my "Mint to Be" Thin Mint Pie - probably my personal favorite to date. The assigned judge sampled several bites of crust, custard and whipped cream - both separately and then altogether. Then she threw me for a compete loop when she offered a forkful to the judge next to her and they further conferred on my entry. After what felt like an eternity, the verdict was in - I had earned a first place blue ribbon!
Next up on the judging table was my Not Your Mama's Chocolate Pecan Pie. After a not so brief monologue comparing the merits of using chopped nuts for maximum quantity per bite and ease of slicing versus the aesthetics of a whole nut presentation, the judge awarded my pecan pie with a second place ribbon. Two for two!
Seeking apple pie redemption following a somewhat embarrassing showing at the county fair, my Boozy Caramel Apple Pie was next in the lineup. And while it didn't earn any particular distinction (with the judges noting a slightly underdone crust), I left the fair on cloud nine.

Nevertheless, I think I may retire from apple pie baking...
Six months ago, if you had told me I would earn two ribbons at the State Fair this summer - in pie baking of all things - I would have thought you were a tad bit crazy (or maybe just hadn't tried my baking). But, as this journey is teaching me, who you have been does not have to define who you can become. And, if you can make somebody else happy along the way, even better.
There was something beautifully simple about participating in the 150 year old tradition of women bringing their homemade pies to the fair to be judged. I love that - even in a small way - I have staked my claim in the heritage of California.

Now, excuse me while I check the mail. I am expecting a couple of ribbons.

"Big Fun" - 2012 California State Fair

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mommy's Sweet (Plum) Tart

So I am the first guest blogger for bakesomebodyhappy. The best part is Erin has no idea I am doing this. I hope she forgives me when she gets her tart and reads her blog.

Erin is quite possibly the sweetest woman I have ever met. Who else bakes pies for their friends and family and then follows it up with what is essentially a love letter. Besides being a great writer and pie baker, she is also an amazing mother, and wife. Our family has always been her #1 priority and the results speak for themselves. We have two of the sweetest boys I have ever met, yes I am biased. She also has a husband (me) that is madly in love with her. The boys and I are so lucky to have her in our lives.

Behind every good man is a better woman, I owe my professional, relational and spiritual success to Erin. She is always pushing me to be a better person, work extra hard at school, have a beer with a friend in need, and to serve at church. I know without her I was lost and with her I am found. She deserves more than I can offer, so the least I can do is bake her happy today.

Having already received two pies from my beautiful wife, I thought I would try and surprise her with a pie of my own. The problem is she has gotten so good at making pies I was a little intimidated. There was no way I was going to attempt a pie dough. I decided to take the easy way out and opt for a tart with a crumble crust instead. This way we wouldn’t have to compare her masterpieces to my humble tart.

Picking the ingredients for the tart were simple, quite literally. I asked the boys to pull some of the plums off our purple leaf plum tree in the back yard. Everything else required for the tart was on hand in the fridge or pantry.
Wilson lent his helping hand in prepping the tart as well. He helped me mix the pecans, flour, butter, egg yolk and brown sugar for the crumble crust.

We pressed half of the crumble crust into the baking dish making a bed for the plums to sit on. Then we arranged as many of the plums as we could on top of the crust and covered it with the remaining crumble.
Then into the oven for what seemed like an eternity, I really didn’t want to burn this one. I was strangely proud removing the tart from the oven. It actually looked kind of good.
There is something beautiful about someone who is comfortable in their own skin. Erin doesn’t pretend to be something she is not, she doesn’t put on errs. She actually is as sweet as her pies. I hope she continues to bless those around her with her delicious pies, and make us all better people for having received one.

"If heaven above lets fall a plum, open your mouth."
- Chinese Proverb

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Kristin's "Berry Good Friend" Mixed Berry Pie

There is something wonderfully comforting about an old friend. Someone who has known you through all the awkward stages you have passed by on the way to who you are truly becoming. Someone who not only knew and loved you in spite of the glasses, braces and overly-dramatic crushes of junior high, but who also fits seamlessly into your current life as a grown woman, wife and mother. Kristin is one of these friends for me.

I first met Kristin in junior high, although I can no longer remember in what class or through whom. What I do remember is, even way back then, Kristin was the kind of girl you just wanted to be around - confident, tall, thin, blonde and athletic. Back in our early teen years, our friendship consisted primarily of the typical teenage girl stuff - namely talking for hours on the phone about who was rumored to like who. Our friendship matured as we did and continued throughout high school, but ultimately, was neglected when we both went away to college.
Fast forward several years to our tenth high school reunion. I was seven months pregnant with my first son and feeling enormously insecure in my snug maternity dress with my swollen feet teetering precariously in heels. Surely, several of my former classmates would be also be expecting. But, one look around the ballroom confirmed that I had the only expanding belly in the room.
Then, I ran into a mutual friend who told me that Kristin had been unable to make the reunion because she was at home on bed rest. Within a couple of days, Kristin and I had reconnected over email. As it turns out, we were working in very similar fields, owned houses only five minutes from each other, and were both newly married and expecting our first children about a month apart. I love that moment when you discover that the path of your life and that of an old friend's have been silently moving along the same trajectory, until you meet again. There was an instant sense of kinship between us.
Reconnecting with Kristin was one of those pivotal moments in my transition to motherhood. When my son, Wilson, turned just one month old, Kristin and her daughter, Paige, came over for our very first play date. In retrospect, I realize that the only ones playing (or doing much of anything for that matter) were the grown-ups. I believe our first play date consisted largely of nursing, followed by diaper changes and rocking babies to sleep. But, amidst the fumblings of new mommies, a friendship had been resurrected.
There was security in knowing that Kristin was two months ahead of me in the whole parenting thing, and she was a welcome wealth of advice and reassurance. When Wilson was just five months of age, my dad passed away. And for the first time since becoming a parent, I found myself in the emotionally charged position of needing to leave my child so I could attend my father's funeral. Kristin was my most trusted friend, and I was so grateful for her willingness to watch him. As I dropped off my little guy that May morning, I knew she would care for him the way she did for her own daughter. And when Will went to pick him up that afternoon, Kristin sent him home with his first ever art project - a finger painting. That picture, with it's random smears of yellow and blue, still hangs proudly on the wall of our kitchen.
Kristin and I took any and every opportunity to get together with our growing families. We took the babies to the snow, the zoo and the park. We even developed our own holiday traditions together - Easter egg hunts, annual trips to the pumpkin patch, and caroling and visits from Santa at Christmas.
One of our favorite family traditions is berry picking in Apple Hill. Last year, after a bountiful day of blueberry picking, Kristin invited our family over to share in the first and only pie anyone has ever made specifically for me - blueberry pie. Unfortunately, the pie came out a bit saltier than anticipated. And, while I politely ate my entire slice (Who am I to pass up homemade pie?), the husbands left their portions largely untouched.

So this year, it was time for berry picking pie redemption. We decided that because the kids were a bit older this year, we would brave the thorns to harvest a greater variety of berries. With our little ones in tow, we loaded our buckets with everything from blackberries to boysenberries, marionberries to olallieberries, and the prize of the day - golden raspberries. All together, our bountiful harvest was just enough for the makings of a mixed berry pie - Kristin's "Berry Good Friend" Mixed Berry Pie.
I prepared my standard crust recipe, this time separating the butter-laden lump of dough into two sections - one for the bottom crust and the other for my first foray into the world of lattice tops. Once the dough had chilled, I generously floured the board, rolled the bottom crust to a thin uniform sheet and carefully spooled the dough onto the rolling pin to transfer it into the tin. Finally, I crimped my way around the pie shell, pinching my left thumb between my right thumb and forefinger to form a series of delicate v's.
I rinsed and drained the berries, placing them on paper towels to dry. Then, I added granulated sugar, small pearl tapioca and a dash of cinnamon to season the heaping bowlful of berries.
Using a pasty brush, I glossed the bottom crust with an egg white wash to prevent it from becoming soggy in the oven. Then, I spilled the entire bowlful of sweetened red and purple fruit into the pie shell and set to work assembling my first lattice crust.
Okay - so I was a bit intimidated by the lattice crust. In all honesty, I have not so unintentionally avoided one up until this point - opting instead for it's slightly more forgiving cousins: double crust and dutch crust. But, a well-executed lattice crust really is the quintessential pie covering. Delicate ribbons of flakey golden brown crust woven from edge to edge, blanketing all that bubbling, juicy fruit filling. I just had to give it a try.
So, I rolled out the remaining ball of dough, grabbed my brand spankin' new double-sided pastry wheel and set to work slicing eight scalloped ribbons. Carefully, I interlaced the inch thick strands, alternating over and under one another, as if on a loom. And, voila - instant lattice crust!
Finally, I brushed the woven top with a mixture of egg yolk and heavy whipping cream for a golden sheen before sprinkling the entire pie with coarse, raw sugar. Into the oven with tin foil protectively covering the delicate edges and forty minutes later, I pulled a beautifully fragrant, bubbly berry pie from the oven.
As an adult, I have learned that people come and go from our lives, often reappearing just when you need them the most. This is definitely the case for Kristin and I. And while I know that the demands of raising little people and balancing work and family allow for less time together than either of us would choose, I am confident that ours is a friendship that will stand the test of time.

It has been such a blessing to see our little ones grow and form their own friendship with one another. Second generation friends. From junior high to parenthood and from those first play dates spent largely asleep to the pretend "dates" of our four years olds skipping hand in hand, a good friend really is a "berry good" thing.

"In my mind's eye I saw tart dough, baked into tall fortress walls, which held a kingdom of every type of berry. There was a lattice top, too." - Unknown