Easy a la mode

Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - 6:22pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

I should have gone for the easy recipe. I should have listened to Ina Garten’s signature quip — “store bought is fine.” Had I added the adjective, “beginner,” in the google search bar, my Sunday would have likely been much less involved. 

But I couldn’t seem to help myself. When I opened my browser, I wasn’t thinking about my technical ability, or the fact that every time I make mac and cheese, the pot of water bubbles over.

Perhaps my overconfidence was a consequence of watching one too many YouTube episodes of Clare Saffitz’s, “Gourmet Makes.” Saffitz’s candid approach to reverse engineering Sour Patch Kids or Twinkies make cooking seem meditative. A sort of “anything goes” outlook where when you add too much milk to that bechamel, you just whisk in more cream. Oh, how naïve I was.

***

It was one of those drizzly September afternoons described by local weatherman as “scattered showers.” The type of forecast that offers no insight whatsoever and subsequently makes you question the usefulness of anchormen waving their arms in front of a radar map.

The brisk air had flipped the page to the season of burning your tongue on hot tea and cringing from the sensation of slipping on jeans again.  

An unexpected urge to bake a pie simmered inside of me. Once my eyes devoured the golden crackle of Bon Appetit “Best Apple Pie,” I knew I could stop my recipe search. I had found the pie. All it took was that cover photo. It was the sort of pie whose crust looked like it was kissed by mother nature.

I wandered downstairs to recruit a sous-chef … my mom. I knew her years of peeling apples for my school lunchbox would be essential to my success. It had taken me so long to peel a golden delicious apple the night before, that my dad had boiled a tea kettle before I finished.

When my mom nodded her head and granted me access to the kitchen, I was giddy. What could be more quintessential than a mother and daughter baking a pie? It was a moment cut straight from the Mrs. March’s kitchen in the “Little Women” playbook.  

***

A scan of our pantry confirmed my suspicions — we are not a baking family. No mason jars clouded with flour ready for measuring when an inclination to bake strikes. It seemed the only head start I was getting were the expired sugar crystals at the bottom of the Domino tub from last year’s holiday sugar cookies.

A trip to the grocery store was necessary. While strolling the aisles, I came to realize the complexity of the recipe I had selected. This should have been obvious with the first item on the ingredient list — vanilla bean pods. Not vanilla extract, the actual pods. A 10-minute scavenger hunt through the produce section led me to the vanilla bean pods — located right above shitake mushrooms priced at $6.99 for two pods. That was the only sign I needed to tell me I am going to skip the step of scraping the seeds of the vanilla pod to infuse apple cider. 

And then came the next item, cardamom. My fifth-grade history class interactive activity about the Silk Road and the spice trade had not prepared for me for the sticker shock, nearly $11. I was beginning to think that homemade was not necessarily cheaper in the realm of baked goods. I decided to pursue my backup plan and head to the bulk foods aisle where I scooped a spoonful of spices into a plastic bag and sheepishly headed to the cashier. I am pretty sure I paid more for the plastic baggy than the spice itself. It was time to head back to the kitchen. 

***

We decided to divide and conquer — my mom would make the apple filling and I would make the pie crust. In all honesty, this decision was driven more by poor apple-peeling skills than cooking efficiency. As I began to combine the butter and flour, it became clear to me why people buy the neat Pillsbury pie crust instead. I was staring at a bowl of crumbles; the dough was not dough. It was a pebbly bowl that, no matter how much I mixed, refused to form. My mom was humming along, and I started to worry that we were going to end up making applesauce instead of pie. No dough meant no pie. 

So, I mashed the bits of dough rounds together and prayed that the carefully timed choreography of chilling the dough in the fridge, then the freezer, the room temperature would yield something rollable. 

***

The pie took much longer than anticipated. I credit this to my failure to read through the recipe before deciding to commit. Vanilla beans? Cardamon? Three hours of chilling? I guess this is the life of an apple pie baker. 

But, in the whirlwind of expensive ingredients, pebbled dough and a carefully timed dance of setting, heating and cooling, a pie came out of the oven. After a week of exams, there was something satisfying about spending an entire afternoon doing something that could be gone in a couple bites. 

While I should have probably heeded my mom’s advice and added that adjective “beginner” to my recipe search, there is something to be said for going for the romance of an oozy, delicious, crystallized pie. Apple crumble just wasn’t going to cut it that rainy afternoon.