Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Don's "From Our 'Farm' to Yours" Pear Custard Pie

I know I've mentioned it before, but lunch at Daddy's school truly is one of our family's favorite outings. The hour long adventure provides this stay-at-home Mommy a much needed change of scenery while allowing the little ones to experience the wonder that is a junior high science lab. As an added bonus, we get to see some of our favorite grown-up, educator-type people. Don is at the top of this list.

Don always greets my boys with a big, warm smile and a genuine attentiveness. Wilson and Henry love feeding the fish in his classroom tank - all the while chatting about preschool, the latest Thomas the Train movie, what they plan to be for Halloween and other noteworthy bits of boyhood trivia. They are occasionally lucky enough to receive small trinkets (a sheet of train stickers or a Matchbox toy tractor) as a souvenir of their visit to Don's classroom.

As much as we love these brief visits at school, the real treat is getting to see Don on his farm, charmingly dressed in his uniform of bib overalls.

Don and his lovely wife Maria live just down the road on a sprawling property filled with horses, cows, chickens, ducks and even emus. (Although I generally avoid the emu pen. I struggle with thinking that birds just shouldn't be that big.) Not to mention patches full of pumpkins, trees dripping with ripe cherries and a vegetable garden that makes me rethink my not-so-green thumb. Just last week, Don sent Will home with the most perfect purple eggplant and I immediately began daydreaming of planting our own vegetable garden. Someday.
The boys love all the hands-on experiences that an invitation to the farm provides - climbing on tractors of various sizes, collecting eggs from the chicken coop, meeting a day old calf, feeding carrots to hungry horses and otherwise enjoying the rural life.
Although I am fairly certain that if you asked Wilson what his favorite farm memory was it might have a little something to do with shoving his mouth full of ripe, juicy cherries and letting the sticky juice trickle down to his elbow. Just a hunch.
Following a visit to meet his newest calf last Spring, Don sent us home with a handful of eggs just begging to be lunch. The boys and I scrambled them up, spooned them over buttered toast and topped it off with some melty goat cheese. I will never forget that meal - I vividly remember savoring every bite of the most fresh, delicious eggs I had ever eaten. (And yes, I am fully aware I am a bit dramatic about food. It is a problem.)

I knew at that very moment we would be getting chickens of our own. Except for the small matter of Will and I not knowing the first thing about chickens. So Don became our go-to for advice in everything chicken. Which breeds were the best layers? The most child-friendly? How many chicks did a family of four really need? How big of a coop should we build? Just how were we supposed to train the chickens to lay in their boxes rather than on the floor of the coop? Did we need to clip their wings? Through each stage of our chicken raising - from day old chicks to full grown hens - Don has been a wonderful and nurturing source of inspiration and information. He repeatedly assured us that we were capable (and we maybe even began to believe him).
Don is, for all intents and purposes, a surrogate grandfather to our boys. Although he does not yet have any grandchildren of his own, the love he has for our little ones leads me to believe that he will be a natural. In a way that I just can't quite put my finger on, Don reminds me so much of my own dad. When I see Don with my little guys, I get a glimpse of how they would have been with their Papa if he were still here. It has been such a gift for them - and for me - to experience that grandfatherly spirit in the form of Don. 

Although we are by no means a farm, our little patch of land (all .3 acres of it) has slowly become more rural over the seven plus years we have lived here. Our giant fruit trees bend their branches under the weight of plums and pears and our pumpkin patch has inched its vines over an entire corner of our yard (although only one lone pumpkin survived the scorching heat this year). This past Spring, Will became a composting warrior, I experimented with growing blueberries (if only the boys and chickens would leave some for me) and rhubarb for pie baking and Will built our own little coop that houses three of the loveliest girls you would ever care to meet. I like to think that Don has helped inspire this back to basics drive in us - the desire to give our boys a more simple yet rewarding childhood than we had previously thought possible.
So, with pears ripening at a rapid pace and more eggs than we could ever know what to do with, I thought it only fitting to give back a little slice of our life in the form of Don's "From Our 'Farm' to Yours" Pear Custard Pie.
I began by preparing the crust, substituting my usual shortening for the fancy pants leaf lard I had purchased on our last trip to San Fransisco. Somehow fat straight from the animal just seemed a little more fitting for a farmer.
I worked the mixture of flour, salt, butter and lard between my fingertips until coarse crumbs formed. Then I added just enough iced water to bring the dough together in a shaggy ball.
I rolled out the bottom crust, draped the sheet of dough over the pin to transfer it to the tin, trimmed the excess and fluted the edge in a series of v's.

With the dough chilling in the fridge, I prepared the pears, peeling and slicing each one into thin wedges. Then I set to work arranging the pear slices in a starburst pattern in the bottom of the tin, gradually layering the fruit until I had reached the lip of the crust.
I began the custard by combining flour, baker's sugar and salt in a large bowl. In a separate, smaller bowl, I whisked three eggs (courtesy of our coop), heavy whipping cream and a bit of melted butter. 
Finally, I added my secret ingredient. In place of the standard vanilla extract, I splurged on an organic vanilla bean and I have to admit, the fragrance of that bean when sliced and scraped was worth the price of admission. Plus, I just love the way the seeds pepper the custard.
I combined the wet and dry ingredients and drenched the pinwheel of pears in a heavy dose of vanilla custard.
Then, into the oven for just over an hour and voilĂ  - piping hot Don's "From Our 'Farm' to Yours" Pear Custard Pie.
We are so thankful that when we need a little farm fix we can load the kiddos up in the truck and head on over to Don and Maria's. These are memories and experiences that Will and I would not be able to give the boys - at least not on so nearly a regular basis - without the kindness of Don. Surely we would not have seen a day-old calf take it's first wobbly steps. I would not have the most beautiful mental images of Wilson delighting in juicy cherries straight from the tree. If not for Don, it is doubtful that we would have taken the plunge into raising our own backyard chickens and my boys would have missed out on the joy that is running to the coop to see just how many eggs have been laid that day. Life at the Pollock homestead just wouldn't be the same without Don - our mentor, supporter and friend. And if that's not deserving of a pie, then I don't know what is.

"It is, in my view, the duty of an apple to be crisp and crunchable, but a pear should have such a texture as leads to silent consumption." - Edward Bunyard

Monday, October 8, 2012

Angela's "When Life Gives You Lemons" Lemon Meringue Pie

Early in our dating relationship, the simple mention of "Angela" - one of Will's female co-workers - gave me pause. Will and Angela ate lunch together, swapped books, met for matinee movies and even braved the holiday crowds to shop for my Christmas gift. I will readily admit, I was suspect. You could even say threatened. Just who was this "other woman?"

Thankfully, I didn't have to wait long to find out. Just a few short weeks into our whirlwind romance, Will arranged for us to go on a double date with Angela and her newlywed husband, Rich. Although I may have gone into dinner ready to "size up my competition," I left with the most wonderful new friends. (Not to mention the reassurance that my new love's sibling-like interactions with his female co-worker were completely platonic and did not warrant my growing insecurity.)

Angela and Rich quickly became our go-to couple friends. We went out to dinner together, celebrated birthdays (including a surprise for my thirtieth), made holiday trips to Apple Hill for pumpkins and Christmas trees, stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing Mexican Train dominoes and celebrated the ringing in of each and every New Year together. Over the past near decade, we have shared the joys and losses of pregnancies, supported one another through the deaths of several loved ones and welcomed three new little people into the world. 
In many ways, Angela and Rich were more like family than friends - they were the people we chose to do life with.

And then things changed. Following a sudden separation and ultimately, a divorce, Rich all but vanished from our lives. And I have to admit, our foursome felt a little empty and slightly awkward as a party of three. I struggled with the nagging feeling that Angela had really always been Will's friend, first and foremost, and I wasn't sure where that left me in our dwindling group.

But Angela and I quickly found our own stride, meeting for much needed girl days filled to the brim with shopping and sushi. We forged our own friendship - just the two of us - in a much deeper way than we ever had before. And it felt natural. Over the past year, I have begun to really appreciate Angela for the woman that she is - not Will's co-worker, not Rich's wife, not even Elizabeth's mommy - but just Ang.

The past year and a half has been full for Angela - full of challenges I'm sure she would have preferred to do without. But through it all, she has displayed more grace and composure than I imagine most women could have mustered up. She truly has made the most of the circumstances she has found herself in, however bitter or sour they may be. Taking a page out of Angela's book, I thought it only appropriate to whip up Angela's "When Life Gives You Lemons" Lemon Meringue Pie.

Before I get ahead of myself, I should probably mention that I have a citrus allergy. And not the innocuous type that causes a couple of hives and a little itching. No, no - I am plagued by "ugly" allergies - the kind that leave swollen lips and constricted airways in their wake. In short, I was willing to risk possible anaphylactic shock and EpiPen usage in the making of Angela's pie. Now that, my friends, is love.

I realize this may sound absurd to the average lemon-consuming American, but I have absolutely not a clue what lemon tastes like. I've never had a lemon wedge in my Diet Coke, never stopped by a lemonade stand for a quick thirst quencher on a hot summer day and certainly never had a slice of lemon pie. Basically, I had no idea what this pie should taste like, nor was I able to sample along the way.

So, I began with what I did know - crust. In what has become almost second nature, I combined the usual flour, butter, shortening, salt and ice water with my fingertips. I rolled the dough into a thin, uniform sheet, draping it over the rolling pin to transfer it to the tin, and used my shears to trim the excess before fluting the edges. Then, I lined the shell with a layer of foil and weighed it down with dried beans to blind bake until lightly golden and flaky.

As is the case when baking any pie (or any other baked good for that matter), I have found that the most important component in achieving a successful flavor comes from using the best, freshest and often most local ingredients available. Because I planned to utilize the zest of the lemons in addition to their juice, I opted to purchase organic fruit for this pie.
In a saucepan over medium heat, I combined cornstarch, superfine sugar (granulated sugar that has been ground into finer crystals) and the zest of two lemons. Zesting these sunny little lemons struck the fear of God into me. Although I wore latex gloves when handling all citrus (sexy, I know) and remained ultra-cautious not to touch my face under any circumstance, I did, in a moment of panic, find myself literally needing a breath of fresh air to refocus on the task at hand.
I had every intention of juicing my very first lemon all on my own. I promise I did. But that small rational voice in the back of my head - the one that reminded me of just how important breathing is - won out over my desire to be independent. So, I called Will in from the other room to do the dirty work of juicing for me, directing from a distance to avoid being splattered.
I strained and stirred the lemon juice, the juice of one orange and a bit of water into the saucepan. Once bubbles began to dance on the surface, I removed the mixture from the heat to stir in butter, several egg yolks (setting aside the whites for the meringue) and one whole egg. Finally, I returned the pan to the burner and stirred until the custard had thickened.
Being a total novice when it came to meringue, it would be fair to say I was ever so slightly intimidated. First off, there was the French-ness of it all - always cause for concern when you have absolutely zero training. Secondly, whisking the "good old fashioned way" had become a thorn in my side (or rather, my arm).

Nevertheless, I forged onward, separating half a dozen eggs retrieved from the backyard coop (it doesn't get more fresh or local than that). I began by whisking egg whites, superfine sugar and salt into a froth over a double boiler. Once the foam had warmed slightly and the sugar had dissolved, I removed the bowl from the heat and whisked until stiff peaks formed.
Lest you thought I had a particular affinity for whipping by hand, nearly a half hour of continuous whisking to achieve perfect peaks led to the spontaneous announcement that I will never again whip a meringue, or whipped cream for that matter, by hand. My birthday is quickly approaching and I see a hand-held mixer in my future.

Finally, I dolloped spoonfuls of meringue atop the still warm filling, being careful to anchor it to the perimeter of the pastry. Then I piled the remaining meringue into the center of the pie and used the back of a wooden spoon to create a series of decorative peaks.
I returned the pie to the oven, set on a low broil, and kept a close watch, removing the pie once the meringue had just begun to crisp.
I am happy to report - with the proper precautions, a careful little voice reminding me not to touch my face and quite possibly just some good old fashioned maturity of the immune system, my first lemon pie mission ended without a trip to the emergency room.
My time spent with Angela, particularly over the past year, has reconfirmed what I have always known to be true. I genuinely love the woman that she is - not just because of our history or that my husband met her first or because she has always been a part of my adult life - but because she truly is a beautiful person. I am honored and proud to call Ang one of my dearest friends. She is a shining example of how to pick yourself up by your bootstraps, lean a bit on those around you that love you and make something better when life gives you lemons. 

"Only goes to show that the limit is the sky. If life gives you lemons then you make lemon pie.” - Jay-Z