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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.