Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The magic of pie

I have a slight obsession with pie. There is almost nothing better than a slice of pie still warm from the oven with just the right amount of sweet, just the right amount of spice, and those glorious seasonal ingredients cloaked by a rich and flaky crust. Maybe what I love about pie is that it is so incredibly versatile and seasonal. I mean, you wrap something in buttery pastry crust and it's got to be good right? How could you possibly go wrong? Apple pie in the fall, pumpkin at Thanksgiving, pecan in winter, strawberry rhubarb in spring, cherry in summer, key lime, lemon meringue and french silk in all spots in between - just to name a few. Pure. Heaven.

Before my husband and I started dating, I was trying to convince him of the glory of rhubarb. This was something I grew up on and my mom and grandmother always made beautiful things with it. Its sharp tang mixed with something sweet and juicy like strawberries is one of the ultimate flavor combinations in my opinion. I couldn't fathom that someone wouldn't like it. So I decided I needed to win him over. And I would do it with the ultimate dessert, pie.

So I located the rhubarb, I found the perfect strawberries, and when all was said and done, I had made one damn good pie. Now I won't lie, I'm not great at making crusts. They always come out a bit dry and chewy no matter how hard I try. But not this one. This one was flaky, melt in your mouth delicious. There was no way he couldn't like rhubarb after he tasted this. So I sent him a text message, invited him over for a slice of pie. In his version of the story, as soon as he got my text, he biked from downtown up to my neighborhood (a good eight or nine miles) in record time to eat a pie that contained the devil's fruit. He ate the entire slice of pie.

"Well?" I asked when he finished. I was dying to know what he thought.

He looked at me, hesitating slightly. I could tell he was trying to choose his words carefully. "It's the best rhubarb pie I've ever had."

I laughed, understanding completely. "You still hate it don't you?"

He hung his head and nodded. So I accepted defeat. Some people hate rhubarb because they've never had it prepared correctly. But some people just plain hate it. There would be no convincing him on this one. That night was not a complete failure, however. I learned that this man would bike clear across the city to eat something he hated just to spend some time with me. I call that a pie win!

Since I had started at the Farmhouse, I had yet to see a pie on the dessert menu even though this seemed like the type of place where you should find one. Pam had told me to make apple crisp a regular dessert item, but I couldn't help but feel that this was a cop out. Apple crisp was what people made when they didn't have the time or kahunas to make a pie. Besides, I was tired of Pam giving me things to do, and then never being around to give me recipes or constructive feedback. So I took matters into my own hands. I decided I was going to put apple pie on the dessert menu.

Armed with a recipe and an idiot's fearlessness, I went in for my Thursday shift and departed several hours later leaving two warm pies sitting on the counter. Even though my apple crisp the week before had been an epic fail, I felt good about this.

It turns out, the customers felt good about it too. When I came in for my shift the following Monday, there was one piece of pie left.

Up to that point, staff at the cafe had more or less left me alone. I was only there two nights a week and when I was, I was working pretty steadily. There was no time to chat or get to know anyone. But something changed when those pies came out of the oven. Suddenly people wanted to talk to me and know my story. One server told me the smell of the pies brought a tear of nostalgia to his eyes. A bartender was shocked when I told her this was my first baking job.

When I told Michael, another server, about being in the kitchen with my grandma when I was little, he said, "She'd be proud of you if she could see you right now."

Moments like these made me realize that there was something truly magical about pie. It had the capability to bring people closer together, to help a budding romance, to make the worst day a little brighter. Our memories with pie are always good and for some reason we choose to hold onto them and share them with others. I was honored to be creating more of those moments for anyone that visited that cafe. Because let's face it, life is just generally better when there is pie.

The recipe that was the inspiration for my apple pie at the Farmhouse can be found here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The apple crisp dilemma

Failure is a scary concept for most of us.  We all set out to succeed at things in life.  We set goals, we compare outcomes, we learn from other's mistakes, we adjust our strategy and we strive to be the best at something.  But failure always lingers in the background - it's always a possibility.  Many times it even becomes a reality.  In fact, I believe it's inevitable - nothing worthwhile in life is easy.  We have to fight for it and fall along the way.  It's how we react to those falls that defines us and sets us apart.  Do we get back up, brush ourselves off and try again?  Or do we give up?  Do we accept defeat and succumb to the belief that that thing we really wanted is always going to be out of reach?

For me, being an amateur baker trying to make it the restaurant industry, that fear of failure was always there.  I couldn't shake it.  I hadn't been baking long enough to know all the tricks and secrets of the trade, all of the dos and do nots.  So many times, I had to fail in order to learn.  It was really frustrating and extremely humbling.  But I had no alternative.  There was no one to guide me or teach me at the Farmhouse. It was just me, the dysfunctional kitchen and the hope that I could make something delicious out of a few basic ingredients.

The summer was coming to a close, there was a chill in the air at night, the days were getting shorter, the kitchen wasn't as unbearably hot anymore and cases of apples started to appear in the walk-in cooler.  The owner of the Farmhouse was also the owner of an organic apple orchard in Michigan.  And since farm to table was all the rage, apples were definitely going to be a big deal at the cafe that fall.

Pam approached me one night and informed me that apple crisp was going to be the star of the dessert menu for a while.

"Also, there's a festival coming up next week that we might be baking crisps for.  We're probably going to need 25 pans of it, so whenever you want to get started on those, feel free.  I'll get you a recipe for it."

A recipe never came and neither did any other instructions or guidelines.  So on my next shift, I decided to test out a gluten free crisp recipe I had found.  The Farmhouse had always been a vegetarian friendly establishment and tried very hard to cater to people with dietary restrictions.  I thought this would be the perfect opportunity.  I'd seen a box of almond flour in storage and contemplated using it many times.  Now seemed as good a time as any!

I was lugging a case of apples up to the kitchen when I ran into Tim, the owner.  Since I had started working there, he'd hardly spoken two whole sentences to me.  But when he saw me with the apples, his face lit up.

"Oh, here we go!"  He said, rubbing his hands together excitedly.  "What're you making with the apples tonight, Ceth?"

I was a little caught off guard.  I honestly didn't think he even knew my name.  Stammering a bit, I told him about Pam's plan for the apple crisp and the approaching festival.  He had me walk him through everything, including the pans I was going to use.  I pointed out the giant sheet cake pans.  I'd been using those for cake up til now, so I hadn't assumed it would be any different with the crisps.

"That's going to take a lot of apples," he said earnestly.  He grabbed a couple apples out of the crate, rinsed them lightly and brought them over to my cutting board.  "I'm trying to think about how many it takes to make a pie.  But this will take considerably more.  Do you have an apple peeler?"

I shook my head and showed him the dull and decrepit vegetable peeler I had planned to use.

"Well, that's going to take you all night.  Don't we have a paring knife you could use here somewhere?"

He rummaged around the kitchen in search of one.

"There's got to be a paring knife here.  How do we have a kitchen without a paring knife?"

I stood by and chuckled silently.  He apparently knew nothing of the sad state of this kitchen.  If only he knew of all the challenges I had faced over the last couple months.  But maybe there was hope?  Maybe he would see the work that was needed and do something about it.

He came back to the cutting board with a small chefs knife and started to peel some apples.  "Was Pam going to have some of the prep guys help you out with this?"

I shrugged, "I assumed I might have to come in for a couple extra shifts."

"Yeah, it shouldn't be taking me this long to peel these.  There's no way you're going to be able to make all of that on your own, I don't think.  I have an apple peeler at home. I'll bring it in for you the next time I'm here. Have you ever used one of those?  They're great.  They peel, slice and core all at once."

He said his goodbyes and left me with a pile of apples and an uneasiness in my stomach.  I hadn't really had too many doubts about my process before talking to him.  But now I was worried.  And as I started to peel the apples, I got even more worried.  My hand started to cramp three fourths of the way through.  This was not going to be an easy or quick task.

I eventually managed to fill the pan though and coated the apples with sugar and cinnamon, dotted them with butter and then topped them with my almond flour mixture.

The smell of apples and spice wafted through the kitchen as it baked.  It smelled like fall.  As much as I hated the dark cold days that came with winter, I loved the foods it brought.  Hot chocolate and pumpkin pie.  Roast turkey dinners, hearty soups and stews.  And of course, apple desserts of all shapes and sizes.

As I pulled the pan out of the oven, I knew with certainty I was going to have to make apple crisp at home this weekend.  I was dying for a bite.  I had had my doubts about the recipe as I was making it - being gluten free, it was definitely a healthy rendition.  And the fact that I had to multiply it by about 10 didn't help matters.  Would it be what Pam had been looking for?  She hadn't given me a recipe, so honestly, what could she expect?  The delightful smell was reassuring though, and I tried not to think about it too much.

To my dismay, my next shift found the apple crisp sitting where I had left it, a few scoops missing.  In the walk-in, I found a deep, steam tray pan filled with another apple crisp.  My heart sank.

I garnered the courage to talk to Pam.  "So was that crisp I made any good?"

"I couldn't serve it," she said flatly.  "What recipe did you use?"

"It was a healthier, low sugar, gluten free one I found on the internet."

"Yeah, it was too healthy."

Well, that was that.  My confidence was shot.  Crisps were some of the easiest desserts to make and I had failed.  I was ashamed.  I could only assume what Pam thought of me.  Luckily, the night was not all bad news.  It turned out that we hadn't gotten approved for the festival, so I was off the hook for 25 pans of crisp.

Still, unable to bear the burden of defeat, I went home and made an apple crisp that weekend.  I had to prove to myself that I was capable of doing this, even if Pam would never know.  I didn't follow a recipe, I just went with my gut.  It came out beautifully.  If only I had trusted myself when I had made that crisp at the Farmhouse.  But there was no going back, I would just have to learn to trust my instincts next time.  And though the failure had been painful, I knew it was going to take a lot more than a pan of bad apple crisp to keep me down.