Friday, September 21, 2012

Joanna's "Better Together" Peanut Butter and Chocolate Pie

You know you've made a friend for life when your first meeting results in hair braiding. 

I met Joanna in junior high, at a mutual friend's birthday party. It was one of those "Where have you been all my life?" moments. Ok - that may seem dramatic, but when you consider that my entire seventh grade year consisted of trying to fade into the background (braces, teal glasses, awkward early bloomer-ness and all), I think we can agree I was in desperate need of a real friend. And here she was - giggling, confiding in me about her crush on the mysterious, brooding boy from our history class and letting me braid her hair. 
When my parents picked me up later that afternoon and asked how the party was, I replied matter of factly, "I met my best friend."
From that point on, I never had to worry about eating lunch alone, who to sit next to at the school assembly or who to carpool to the dance with. Joanna and I spent nearly every day together - passing old-school handwritten and intricately folded notes in class (I think I still have a boxful of these stashed somewhere at my Mom's house), tying up the phone line for hours dissecting the crush potential of every boy at school and otherwise navigating teenage life together. Joanna, or "Jo-Jo" as I called her, was my confidant, partner in crime and constant companion.
Joanna's family was warm and welcoming and happily took me in, setting a fifth seat at the dinner table several nights a week and even inviting me to tag along on Schrudder family vacations. It was with Joanna that I experienced my first tastes of freedom - after school attempts to be noticed by the who's who of eighth grade at Round Table, being dropped off for a couple of hours (sans chaperone) at the mall or movie theater, squeezing in the back of her older brother Greg's Geo Metro for a parent-free ride home from high school and exploring exotic, far off places like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Disneyland.
And it went both ways. My family adored Joanna and eagerly fostered our friendship. She always had an open invitation to stay for dinner or spend the night. In fact, she spent so much time with my family that my dad routinely referred to Joanna as his "favorite daughter."

Then came high school graduation. While I was planning to attend UC Davis in the fall, Joanna would be moving into the dorms at Sonoma State, a couple of hours away. In the beginning, we talked constantly and even made weekend trips to visit one another in our new worlds. But things were changing. We were growing independently where we had planted ourselves, just as we were supposed to. We made new friends, bonded with roommates and found our own niches in our new communities. 
Now, with twenty years of friendship behind us, a husband and two young children apiece and living half a state apart, I regret to say that our lives rarely intertwine outside of Facebook. But when Joanna messaged last spring, saying she would be visiting family in Sacramento, I was so excited to catch up and meet the newest addition to her growing family. It was such a surreal experience to watch our children play together - meeting a new friend, not unlike we did on that fated day twenty years ago. 
It always just feels right in Joanna's company. Even when years pass between visits, I quickly fall right back into that comfortable rhythm that most friendships never quite discover. I guess it's true what they say - some things are just better together.
Take peanut butter and chocolate. Sure, peanut butter on it's own is pretty tasty. I confess I have been known to sneak a spoonful here and there. And chocolate, well . . . is there really anything better than chocolate? Yes, I submit that there is - peanut butter and chocolate. It's one of those "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts" kind of deals. 

I think Joanna and I are a bit like that - good on our own, but really spectacular together. So, in honor of another welcomed play date and some much needed girlfriend time, I thought I would whip up a pie - Joanna's "Better Together" Peanut Butter and Chocolate Pie.

Alright, I have a confession to make - I may have Pinterest stalked Joanna, just the teensiest bit. As luck would have it, much of her dessert pin board consisted of recipes chocolate in origin. And, as an added bonus, right smack dab in the middle of writing this post, Joanna pinned a recipe for peanut butter pie! How's that for kismet?

I vacillated back and forth about what type of crust to pair with this pie. The options seemed endless - pretzel, graham cracker, Oreo cookie. But in the end, I settled on my traditional combination of shortening and butter - largely because I was inspired to recreate a braided crust technique I had found online. The marriage of braids and pie just seemed too perfect an opportunity to let pass by.
I have found that oftentimes the pastry techniques that appear to be the most difficult are actually the simplest - take, for example, lattice crust. But, be forewarned - this is not one of those techniques. Braiding dough is quite possibly more difficult than it looks. The necessary handling rapidly softens the butter, causing the lengths of dough to stretch just enough to make the whole braid misshapen. However, after several trips into the fridge to chill, I was rather pleased with this lovely edge.
While the crust blind baked, I prepared the pie filling - a variation of the chocolate custard recipe used in my Thin Mint PieI brought egg yolks (the first straight from the coop!), sugar, cornstarch, salt and whole milk to a boil, until it had thickened to a pudding-like consistency. 
On a separate burner, I melted a combination of semisweet and bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler. 
Finally, I strained the custard before stirring in the melted chocolate, softened butter and vanilla extract. 
Once cooled to room temperature, I spooned the rich chocolate custard into the pie shell. Then, I nestled miniature Reese's peanut butter cups into the filling, just to gild the lily.
The final layer - a peanut butter mousse - began with homemade whipped cream. Having now whisked several batches by hand, I continue to ask myself why I don't yet own a KitchenAid mixer - or at the very least, a hand mixer - for tasks such as these. Alas, our small galley kitchen and limited counter space do not afford such luxuries.

So once again, I whisked heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar, by hand, until stiff peaks formed (and my arm begged for mercy).
In a separate bowl, I blended cream cheese, peanut butter and a little more powdered sugar before gradually folding in the whipped cream, so as not to deflate all of my hard work.
Then I spread a generous layer of the peanut butter mousse over top and placed the pie into the fridge to set.
Although I was nearly certain of the flavor (having sampled here and there along the way), the overall beige appearance left something to be desired. But a few minutes later, covered in dark chocolate shavings and topped with a single inspiration candy, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was ready for delivery.
Even now, when I am with Joanna, I revert to that familiar place of safety and love that only the oldest and dearest of friends can offer. As we sat and discussed such grown-up topics as work, marriage and parenthood and watched our little ones chase each other around her parents' yard, I was struck that I just honestly never pictured us being this old. I think Joanna will perpetually be fourteen in my eyes - in the best of ways - just as I feel every time I am with her. Forever young.

Although I miss our day to day friendship terribly, I am continually grateful for these visits - however few and far between. As Joanna wrote in the pages of my senior yearbook, "No matter how far apart we may be in the future, I know that our hearts will always be together." Wise beyond her years, that one.

"It's like peanut butter and chocolate. Each is great, but they're better together." - Richard Whitehead

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dad's Heavenly Cherry Pie

This blog has documented a real period of change and growth for me - as a baker, and more importantly, as a person. I love that through a little trial and error I have learned to make a pie crust from scratch. I feel immense satisfaction every time I pull a warm, fragrant, bubbling pie from the oven. I will never tire of the look of surprise on someone's face when I present them with a Bake Somebody Happy pie box. And I so appreciate the kind words reciprocated by my friends and family after reading the "love letters" dedicated to them. 

But, by far, the most rewarding aspect of this pie journey has been the ability to truly reflect on my relationship with the person I am baking for - who they are to me and how they have impacted my life. This time of meditation has been such a gift, to allow myself a week or two to tangibly process my gratitude toward one particular person. And this gift of time has never been more of a blessing than in the preparing of this post.

This week would be my dad's 69th birthday. 
My dad passed away just over four years ago. As I sat at his bedside and watched him take his last breath, I knew that that moment would forever change my life. But, what I have come to learn in the years since is that life continues to hold such abundant blessings - even if they are often a bit bittersweet in his absence.

I miss my dad terribly. Although the haunting visions that played on a constant loop in my head in the weeks following his passing have been replaced by memories of happier and healthier times and the tears are fewer and farther between, there is not a day that goes by that I don't wish he was here. To see the mother I have become. To meet my sweet Henry James who shares his middle name. To explore the railroad museum with Wilson just as he did with me when I was a little girl. To hear him call me Etta (no one does that anymore). To hear him say he loves me just one more time. To tell me I have made him proud.
Every time I hear the opening lines to "Finally Home" by Casting Crowns, I both ache in missing my Daddy and rejoice in knowing that I know I will see him again.

"I'm gonna wrap my arms around my Daddy's neck
And tell him that I've missed him.

And tell him all about the man that I became
And hope that it pleased him.

There's so much I want to say.
There's so much I want you to know
When I finally make it home."

I am grateful for the talks my dad and I had in the days and weeks before he passed away - about his absolute confidence that God was in control, his resolve that he was called home first to prepare the way for the rest of us and that although he would miss seeing Wilson grow up he knew he would still be Papa in heaven to the baby I had miscarried the year before. These talks give me so much comfort when I find myself starting to wallow.
I feel extremely lucky to have been my father's daughter. My dad was a gentle giant of a man who knew how to laugh at himself, always had a bounce in his step, skipped in parking lots just for the heck of it and could fix anything with ten minutes and his tool box. But his real legacy lives on in the life lessons he instilled in me as a little girl - the importance of family, that "money doesn't bleed" and that I was deserving of unconditional love.

I inherited a lot of things from my dad - his nose (which I am perfectly at peace with now, but caused several minor panic attacks in junior high), my not so spectacular ability to hold a grudge, the inability to throw away anything because "I might need it" later and a deep and abiding love of food. 
While it is true that my dad loved food in general, he had a particular fondness for cherry pie (or at least, cherry pie filling). He was a dessert with fruit kind of man. Every year on our birthdays, he and I would request box-made chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, topped with heaping spoonfuls of canned cherry pie filling.

Seeing as how my baking skills have improved a tad bit since his passing, I thought it only appropriate to class up Dad's birthday this year with a homemade cherry pie. So, with a lump in my throat and a grateful heart, here goes - Dad's Heavenly Cherry Pie.

When my brother, John, visited from Washington earlier this summer, he brought with him the most glorious brown bag full of Rainier cherries picked straight from his own yard. He said he thought I might be able to use them in a pie. Little did he know that I had been planning a cherry pie in honor of Dad since the inception of this blog last Spring! What more fitting tribute to my dad than a cherry pie baked by his firstborn daughter, using cherries grown by his firstborn son. 
So, I set to work rinsing, pitting, stemming and freezing the loveliest golden and red cherries I had ever seen. All the while, trying to keep my hard work from sneaking it's way into this little cherry thief's belly.
Then there was the little matter of finding the "perfect" recipe. I quickly learned that when tackling a classic like cherry pie, everyone and their mother has their own variation. Wait - that was it! A quick phone call to my own mom secured a copy of my Grandma Blanche's cherry pie recipe - the one she had made for my parents when they were first married. I think it only appropriate that the pie I make to honor Dad is one he had actually eaten and enjoyed. Plus, who doesn't love a little nostalgia - especially when it comes to pie?

I began by preparing a double batch of my grandmother's crust recipe. I find this particular recipe to be counterintuitive to most everything I have learned with regard to pie crust in that the usual suspects - flour, salt and shortening - are paired with some very unique characters - namely, milk and boiling water. While nearly all others stress the importance of using cold, if not frozen, fats and liquids, Grandma goes against the grain. 
I rolled out the first half of the dough to create the bottom crust and carefully transfered it to the pie shell. Then, I trimmed the excess and fluted my way around the perimeter of the pie by delicately pinching my left thumb between my right thumb and forefinger to create a series of V's.

While the crust chilled, I combined a generous amount of sugar, a bit of flour and just a pinch of cinnamon to thicken the cherry filling. In a separate bowl, I added almond extract to the thawed cherries before tossing them lightly with the dry ingredients. The result was a slurry of sugary cherry slush. I may or may not have snuck a couple of cherries at this point - just for quality control purposes, mind you.
But, my heart sank as I slid the entire bowlful of filling into the chilled pie shell. It was at this point that I realized that skimping on the cherries (the recipe called for four cups and I had just over three) caused the filling to reach only 2/3 of the way up the pie tin. Unfortunately, this made the fluted edge I had spent so much time shaping look completely ridiculous and a bit empty.

Then it struck me - I could rework the edge using my pastry wheel. So, with one fell swoop, I cut off all of my hard work. When it was said and done, I felt confident that the risk was indeed worth the reward.

Finally, I set to work preparing the upper crust. I began by rolling out the second half of the dough and proceeded to cut the thin sheet into strips roughly one inch wide. Then for the wow factor - weaving the scalloped strips to create the lattice. (Shh - it looks way more impressive than it actually is.)
I brushed the exposed crust with an egg wash before adding a dusting of raw sugar for texture and shine.
Then, into a "hot" oven (per Grandma's directions) for forty minutes and out she came - a beautiful, bubbling cherry pie.
I vividly remember my dad reminiscing about his own mother, my Grandma Nita, baking peach pie when he was just a boy. As the story went, his baby sister, my Aunt Sherry, would cut the first slice while the pie was still warm from the oven, staking a claim on all of the fruit filling that ran into her empty section of the tin. My kind of girl.

In keeping with tradition, I think I am going to slice this one while it is still warm, too. 
Happy birthday, Daddy. I love you. 

And I hope I made you proud. 

"When you die, if you get a choice between going to pie heaven and regular heaven, choose pie heaven.
It might be a trick, but if it's not, mmmmmmmm, boy." - Jack Handy