Sunday, September 23, 2007

My Mother's Pastry, and other legends...

I pride myself on being a fairly good cook.

I love food. I enjoy entertaining, and feeding people. Perfectly prepared food has incredible power: it excites the senses and brings people together. It can comfort and soothe the troubled soul. It nourishes on many, many levels.

I am always interested in combining different ingredients to create new variations on recipes, and creating different taste sensations. But, I have also discovered that there are some recipes that just can't be improved upon, because they have already reached their ultimately perfect potential. And the majority of those recipes come from my mother's kitchen.

My mother is, bar none, the finest cook that our family has ever produced. She can do it all, people. She can perfectly scramble an egg into a light, fluffy, yet slightly creamy consistency (don't ask me how she does it, I've been watching her technique for YEARS, and still can't get it exactly right). She can coax the most beautiful, pneumatic cheese souffles to arise out of a casserole dish, and serve it to a brunch crowd before it's had the slightest chance to deflate. She can create the most enormous, crusty loaves of bread, and the aroma produced while they bake has been known to rouse small children from their sleep (the dough takes half the day to knead and rise, and so batches of bread at my mother's house bake far into the night). And every year, she concocts the most sinfully decadent multi-layered chocolate cake for my birthday. It is made with pounds and pounds of solid chocolate and a vat of sour cream, and is so rich and delicious that the mere THOUGHT of it makes me want to lie down on the floor and roll around for awhile.

And then there's her pastry.

My mother claims that her pastry recipe originates from the back of a Crisco box, but none of us actually believe her.

WE believe that the Food Gods must have whispered it into her ear one night while she was sleeping. Then, they gifted her hands with magical powers to create no-fail perfection whenever the impulse to bake a pie strikes her.

Well, okay, maybe that's taking it a BIT too far.

But suffice it to say this:

A few years ago, my father arrived to stay at our house for a weekend. He was in need of a little company while my mother was away on one of her "Crumbly Tours". Just so you know, a "Crumbly Tour" doesn't actually have anything to do with pastry. Or food of any sort, for that matter. A "Crumbly Tour" is what we used to call the little holidays that my mother would take a couple of times every year, to visit all of the very elderly relatives in our family. She would get on a plane and fly out West, and then dot back across the country, and stop in to spend a couple of days with each aged "Crumbly", until she finally reached home again.


My mother was away, and my father packed up and came to stay with my crazy brood for a weekend while she was gone.

And, as I do for all people who come to stay at my house, I cooked for him. In fact, I made a special point of cooking recipes of my mother's that I happened to know he particularly enjoyed.

After the Saturday evening meal, my father sat contentedly at my table, enjoying his coffee, with a small, satisfied smile on his face.

"That was very nice. Thank-you," he said, as he pushed back his chair and began clearing the table for me.

"But I must ask you..." he continued, as he ran hot water into the sink and added soap. "Have you learned to make your mother's pastry??"

Pastry, according to my father, is my mother's crowning achievement. She is, and always has been, the perfect woman, wife, and mother to his children. But the fact that she is capable of making pastry that renders him almost incapable of coherent speech is clearly the BONUS in his marriage that he never suspected he'd be lucky enough to possess.

This pastry recipe is very, very simple. Deceivingly so, in fact. Because I will write it down, just as she did for me, using HER words... But it will take you time and practise to perfect it. You will learn that this pastry MUST be made with a light, cool hand. I'm not kidding about that: your hands actually MUST be cool. If your kitchen is warm, and your body temperature is too high, then it is important that you don't actually touch the mixture with your hands at all. Go out and purchase a pastry cutter-- one of those little U-shaped wire things that mashes shortening into flour, without allowing your skin to come in contact with the ingredients. In the wintertime, I always prepare pastry on the counter space that is directly under an open kitchen window. It sounds goofy, and more often than not I freeze my butt off, but it is worth it. It makes THAT MUCH of a difference. Temperature and over-handling is what causes the consistency of pastry to become "tough".

The recipe I am going to give you is for a double-crust pie, and in this case, an apple pie. But, if you are making a single-crust pie, like pumpkin, or a quiche, or simply covering a pot-pie, you can divide the amount in half, or make two single-crusts and then freeze one (either roll it out flat on parchment paper, or form it into a pie plate and freeze the whole shebang).

It's officially autumn, everyone. It's Time for Pie!

Canadian Apple Pie


2 c white flour
1 c Crisco shortening (NOT lard, or anything else. CRISCO.)
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp ice-cold water

Mix the flour, salt and Crisco with the fingers (or a pastry cutter) until it is the size of small peas. Add the cold water, and knead lightly.

Divide the dough (1/3 and 2/3 if you're making a double-crust, OR 1/2 and 1/2 if you're making two singles).

Roll out the bottom crust, and place it in a 9-inch pie plate, crimping the edges.

(Okay, I have to interject again, here, because I have discovered the answer to rolling out the pastry without touching it too much. Take a very large piece of parchment paper, and tape it to your countertop with scotch tape. Then dust it with a little bit of flour, and roll your pastry out on top of it. When you are ready to transfer the pastry to the pie plate, centre the pie plate upside-down on top of the rolled-out pastry. Then un-tape the parchment paper from the counter, lift everything up and quickly flip over the plate, pastry and paper, so that the pastry is on top of the plate. Peel off the parchment paper, and press the pastry into the pie plate. Voila!!! You might have to trim the excess pastry from the sides of the pie plate before you can crimp it with your fingers... Just add the extra to the other lump of pastry before you roll it out.)


Peel and cut up enough apples to fill the pie shell. (My mother always uses Macs, but I have used Courtlands and Galas, with spectacular results. Make sure that your slices aren't TOO THIN, or the filling will be mushy. You want a little bit of texture in there. And pile the slices up a bit-- everything flattens out during the cooking process, and you want a bit of height.)

Pour 3/4 c of sugar over the apples, then dot the top with small pieces of butter. (That's all she wrote, folks. Just apples, sugar and butter. No messing around with spices to take away from the perfect flavour of the apples.)

Roll out the top piece of pastry, and place it on top of the apples. (My mother carefully shapes this piece in a circle, and then "floats" it on the top of the apples. She doesn't crimp the pastry top into the pastry bottom, which allows steam to escape from the pie better while it bakes. Do cut a few little slashes into the top-crust to allow for steam to escape the centre of the pie, as well)

Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, and then lower the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees, and bake for another 40-50 minutes.

And now, I'm going to give you the ULTIMATE secret to serving a perfect Canadian apple pie... Are you ready for this? Pay attention:

This is a wheel of Aged Cheddar Cheese. And THIS, people, is the only food substance that should accompany a perfect slice of Canadian Apple Pie on a plate. Not ice cream (and I know, I know... I hear all you "a la mode" lovers out there... CHEESE IS BETTER. You'll just have to trust me on this one). It's even better than a big slurp of warm custard drizzled on top. And THAT'S saying something, considering I come from a clan that swills custard like drunken savages.

Apple pie with a great big wedge of sharp cheddar cheese... Now, THAT'S what autumn is all about, people.

Thanks, Mum.


painted maypole said...

apple pie with cheese is a big German tradition, as well.

OK, I usually make my pie crusts by unrolling them out of the box. You amaze me. There is no way I could get this right.

mrinz said...

Ohh I am drooling!

My mother also could make pastry to die for but she never passed on her methods.

Well I never really was interested in baking enough to ask and when I was ready she was no longer with us!

However I do remember that cold hands had something to do with it.

Sometimes if I am eating a raw apple I will slice it and and eat it with slices of cheese. They sound a funny combination but taste delicious together (like bananas and cashew nuts, another strange combination)

Anonymous said...

My mother used that recipe too, as do I when i don't buy the box of unrollit yourself ones. She would roll out lots and then add a piece of wax paper and a round of dough just to fit into the top of the shell. You cut around your favorite bowl. The space around the edges keeps it from bubbling over and when you keep them in the freezer it they are handy. Plus the freezing makes it flakier.


Thanks for the mom and pie memories

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