Pie. if you’ve been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I’m particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.
You see, there’s only so many apple pies one baker can make. When you tire of apple, you start to get really creative with pear. Pear Streusel. Pear Ginger, Apple Pear (whoa!), Pear Cranberry (whee!). Yes, so let’s just say that when a large brunt of your business is seasonal pies, winter can be a tough season. And spring’s sneaky 80-degree days and lingering, lingering light? The most welcome sight ever.
At the kitchen where I bake, we’ve been rolling up the delivery doors and letting the sun shine in. There are railroad tracks right across the parking lot, so there’s a breeze, the sound of the occasional train, mixers beating away, ovens opening and closing. It’s an afternoon in a bakery. And it’s all the sweeter when my station is filled with new juicy fruit that is just waiting to be folded into a pie and carted off to the farmers market.
But it’s not just the lack of colorful fruit that has had me in a bit of a Marge rut lately. The reality is that I haven’t checked in for awhile. With my vision for the business. As a small business owner, it’s really easy to get caught up in the routine of it all: the weekly errands, the bills and invoices, the cost analysis and bookkeeping and making the same recipe over and over and over. It’s easy not to step back from it all and think about what still excites you, why you’re still cutting 20 pounds of butter into flour on Friday nights. By hand. When you could be having cocktails on a patio if you really wanted to. Or at the very least testing a new recipe that excited you. There’s simply just not enough time–for weekend cocktails or new recipes, for that matter.
I just started reading this book by the co-founder of Ann Arbor-based bakery and restaurant, Zingerman’s, called Building a Great Business. Can I just say that I never, ever read business books? I usually find them dry and prescriptive and they generally make me anxious rather than excited. But this one’s different. In addition to the typical Business Plan/Recipe for Success bit that generally makes an appearance in books like this, Ari Weinzweig writes about the importance of Crafting a Vision of Greatness. He discusses how this differs greatly from a mission statement in that it’s more specific and is really a full-scale picture of what things will look like when you’ve arrived at where you’re going and things are working well.
Weinzweig states that it’s so important because it’s a statement of optimism in the future and you’ve got to have this with your business. It also allows you to create your reality instead of just reacting to problems. He stresses documenting it. Write down your vision. Heck, if you don’t know what it is, no one else is going to. Come to terms with it and be accountable for it, and the chances that things will begin moving in a forward fashion are much, much greater.
So over the next two weeks I’m going to come up with my vision of greatness. I’m really going to sit back and think about what excited me about Marge, what I want for the business in the next 1 year, 5 years, even 10 years. Who am I doing it for? Why? What exactly am I trying to do or accomplish? Because really, the answer to these questions is more than making the same exact number of pie slices each week and going to stand at the farmer’s market on a cold Sunday morning in May. There’s a deeper connection to the food I’m making and the reason I’m drawn to old-fashioned recipes and small-scale, artisan food production. So it’s time to revisit that and to get excited again.
A last point that Weinzweig makes is that, regardless of what business you’re in or what personal goal you’re pursuing at the moment, it takes a lot longer to make something great than most people think. So many of us put such high expectations on ourselves for things to fall into place in a short period of time (I’m guilty of this, too). Some of it has to do with our fast-paced culture and increasingly short-attention spans, but some of it also has to do with limited knowledge on the importance of staying power in most creative pursuits. There’s something to be said about just showing up. Sure, I need to sit down and document what I envision for the future of Marge. But I also need to just continue to go through the motions at the same time. Make pie after pie. Because that balance is important. And, frankly, that’s what I do.
Now I can’t guarantee that this pie will help you slide out of any creative rut you may find yourself in lately, but it will certainly help. That I know for sure.
I do like to use quick-cooking tapioca for many juicier fruit pies, but if you have trouble finding it, feel free to use cornstarch instead. And let the bubbling juices be your guide as to when the pie is truly done; some pies may take just a few minutes longer than others.
Prepare your pie: Roll out 2 dough disks to 12-inch round; transfer one right into a 9-inch pie pan and trim any excess overhang (leave 1/2-inch overhang), leave the second one out as it will top the pie once filled.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Combine first seven ingredients (along with the optional orange zest) in a large bowl and gently toss to combine. Spoon filling into bottom crust. Scatter little pats of butter on top of the filling and place the second disk of dough on top of the pie. Fold edges under and crimp as desired. Brush with egg mixture and cut a few slits in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape.
Bake 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F and bake pie until the top is golden and the fruit filling starts to bubble, about another 25 minutes. Transfer pie to rack and cool completely.
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.