I’m not at all a New Years person. I was trying to think about a memorable New Years that I’ve had and I actually can’t recall a one. Oh wait, I take that back. I do remember one New Years in college that involved a bathtub and a really bad taxi ride. But that’s another story altogether. I’m also not the kind of person who has any desire to get all anxious about making plans, really good plans, better plans than any year before. It just seems like a lot of work.
I had a boss once who would ride her bike up this great peak in Boulder, CO and spend the day alone. Just hanging and thinking and setting intentions for the year ahead. This is much more my style than expensive prix fixe meals or hotel parties. So while I didn’t ride up any major peaks today, I did bake a pie. A simple lemon pie — so simple, in fact, that the Shakers used to make this very same recipe well over a hundred years ago. It’s bright in citrus flavor with a rich, buttery crust that will make you smile. You do want to use Meyer lemons if you can get your hands on them. They’re not at all bitter and make for a truly magical pie. You deserve no less on New Years Day.
So I’ll leave you with a quote today from a novel I finished recently by Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin. While I realize you may not have any context for the quote, I think it says a lot about perspective and how to look forward in this upcoming year. When it comes right down to it–dreams and love and high, high aspirations aside– we all just do our best. That’s all there really is, yes?
“We stumble on … bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough. The world spins. We stumble on. It is almost enough.”
While you can count the ingredients for the filling on one hand, this pie does take a little planning as you should let your lemons macerate (hang out in sugar) for 24 hours if possible (if not, at least 4 hours; this isn’t accounted for in the timing breakdown above). To get a really incredible pie without a hint of bitterness, you want to slice your lemons as thin as possible. I use a mandolin and set it on the thinnest setting possible. You could very well use a sharp knife, too — just go for drapy, almost see-through slices. As for the crust, I love using vinegar in my pie dough–it prevents the formation of gluten (which makes for tough pastry) and helps to create a light, flaky pie.
Filling adapted from: The Joy of Cooking: All About Pies & Tarts
Flaky Butter Crust
Prepare your lemons very first thing as they need to sit for 4-24 hours (I recommend the latter). Grate the zest from your two lemons into a glass or stainless-steel bowl. Slice the lemons paper-thin, removing the seeds as you go. Put in bowl along with the zest and add sugar. Quickly toss, cover, and let sit at room temperature.
Make the dough: Whisk together the flour, salt and sugar. In a food processor or by hand with a pastry cutter, blend the cold cubed butter into the flour mixture until it’s the size of small peas. Don’t obsess about the chunks being the same size. Uneven is good with crust. Work relatively quickly so the butter doesn’t warm. Combine the ice water and vinegar and add slowly in a thin drizzle, mixing during/after each addition. Many factors affect the moisture of pie dough, so you may find you’ll use less water or you may need a little more. Your dough is ready when it just barely begins to clump together and should have some dry bits remaining. Dump dough out onto a clean surface and split in half. Quickly form into 2 chubby disks and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour. You may also make the dough ahead — it’s good for 3 days in the refrigerator.
When you’re ready to make the pie, take the dough out of the refrigerator and roll one half into a 13-inch round and fit into a 9-inch pie pan. Trim any overhanging to 3/4 inch all around. Roll the other half into a 12-inch round for the top crust and lay on aluminum foil or parchment. Refrigerate both while making the filling.
Preheat the oven to 425 F.
Make the filling: In a medium bowl, whisk eggs until frothy. Then whisk in butter and flour until mixture is even. If you have clumps from your flour, pour the mixture through a sieve. Stir the lemon mixture into the egg mixture. Pour the filling into the bottom crust. Brush the overhanging bottom crust with cold water, cover with top crust and trim and flute the edges. Cut steam vents in the top crust. If top crust is sloping a bit and it seems like there’s not enough filling, don’t worry–the filling rises and the top crust comes right along with it.
Bake the pie for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F and bake until top crust is golden brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 20-30 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack. The pie can be stored in the refrigerator for up to days, but let it warm to room temperature before serving.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.