I always thought I’d be a teacher when I grew up. Like the dutiful first child that I tend to be, I went to school to be a teacher. I continued on to graduate school. I taught college freshman in Boston and moved on to teach high school freshman back in California. My mom was a teacher and I’d grown up spending time in her classroom (ahh, the hours of Oregon Trail!), hearing tales of her students, and witnessing her late-night grading sessions. It seemed so seamlessly that, all of a sudden, I had a classroom and tales of my own. Until I didn’t. The teaching climate in California was (and still is) a tough one and finding solid work became impossible. People often ask if I miss teaching. I miss my students a great deal and I miss the act of teaching — the challenge of thinking through how to present a piece of information or a structured lesson so that a classroom full of different kinds of learners could really “get it.” I realized last week that, while I’ve been out of the academic classroom for a few years now, in many ways, I’m still doing the very same thing. Food writing and recipe development has, at its core, the act of learning and teaching. There are new kitchen skills to master and dishes to try; there are ways we take what we learn and make it our own based on tastes, ability level or preference; there are then ways we pass them on to others. Saturday night that process came to be in the form of a very fine roast chicken and a grapefruit chess pie.
I roasted my first chicken about a month ago. I know, I know: I’m a little late to the game. It’s been one of my main sources of kitchen and food writing shame: shhh, I have no clue how to roast a chicken! I’d decided all that was silly, so I set out researching many different recipes, landing on one from The Commonsense Kitchen, a book I love dearly. I bought my chicken, picked up some aromatics and lemon, gave my sister a quick call for support (she knows everything there is to know about cooking meat. I have her on speed dial), and got to roasting. A while later, Sam and I realized we’d just eaten what was essentially pretty uncooked chicken. I’d been so fearful of drying it out that it was far from properly cooked. So what began as a hopeful quest to teach myself a new kitchen skill ended with a sense of defeat. I consoled myself that, hey, I’d tried it and clearly, this once-vegetarian wasn’t meant to be much of a chicken roaster. I told the story to my friend Olaiya a few days later. She’s quite wonderful with food — she’s worked in many Seattle kitchens and was one of the founders of The Pantry. Also: she knows her way around a roast chicken, and thought with a little instruction, I could as well. So we got a date on the calendar for a proper chicken do-over. Sam and I would get the bird, the wine and the bread. She’d bring a side dish and the knowledge. I’d make a pie. We were set.
The chicken turned out beautifully. I brined it overnight, we stuffed it with rosemary and lemon and slathered it with olive oil, salt and pepper. Olaiya showed me how exactly to truss it and tell when the chicken is done without using a thermometer (as I’d obsessively done previously) — instead learning how to really feel when it’s done, how to wiggle the leg, how to even eyeball the juices coming out of the thigh to get a sense for it. All of that information would’ve taken pages to write down in a cookbook, but I feel like I really, truly get it now. I think I could actually teach someone else how to roast the perfect chicken at this point. But there are certain things that are best shown, yes? I think your very first roast chicken may just be one of those things. Making pie crust just may be another. If you’ve never made a pie before, you could read a million recipes and it’d take some time to get it just right. But if you have someone beside you instructing you to not let the butter warm, how to work gingerly with your fingers, how to roll out the dough in outward strokes without pressing downward — you’d likely get it in one evening.
So a few years later, while awash in rosemary and olive oil and chicken juices, I was yet again thinking about the act of teaching and all of the different ways it works best. Chicken aside: After dinner I brought out the pie I’d made, a pie born from reading about a new recipe, tweaking and revising it. The pie dough is based on a delicious rye dough I learned from Heidi (with a little added vanilla, inspired very recently by Sarah of The Yellow House) and the filling is one I stumbled across in the new Lee Brother’s cookbook, The Lee Brothers’ Charleston Kitchen (which comes out for purchase at the end of this month). If you’re not familiar with chess pie, it’s a Southern recipe that bakes up a sweet, almost custard-like pie traditionally calling for a bit of cornmeal. I’ve had a great lemon chess pie in the past, but wouldn’t have ever thought to lay grapefruit wedges out amongst the custardy filling while baking. It was a big experiment and I couldn’t wait to see how it’d turn out.
I tried a small sliver before serving it and found myself rather smitten with it, but I wasn’t sure how others would feel. Sam said he loved the crust but wished the citrus pieces were smaller. Olaiya would’ve sliced the grapefruit pieces in thin rounds — I agreed that may have been more delicate. Her boyfriend, Beau, seemed fond of it. My friend Keena just picked up a leftover slice to take home — we’ll see what she thinks. The point here is not the reception of the pie. Sure, some people will like a recipe and some won’t. That’s always the case. The point is the way in which we’d all do it again a little differently. We learn, we try something, and we change the way we’d do it in the future based on our findings. The cycle continues and continues. That’s what I so love about cooking, really. It’s always changing.
In this odd little food writing world, we often call that cycle of inspiration, borrowing, learning and then taking what we like and making it our own “adapting”. And it is. But at the heart, it’s also all about learning from each other and graciously giving back — of getting excited to share a discovery, of trying to think through the very clearest and most direct way to write a recipe so you all can make it easily in your own kitchen. In this way, all of this is not so far from what I thought I’d be doing with my days years ago. Writing a clear, cogent pie recipe isn’t all that different than sitting down and breaking down a Hamlet passage: we read the original text, we break it down so we understand it, and then we pass it on in a way that makes sense to us. Today there are fewer parent conferences, for sure. Far fewer grading rubrics and pairs of Banana Republic slacks. And at the end of the day, that’s a good thing. I’m happy to have landed right where I am (decidedly not currently in Banana Republic slacks).
While the pie recipe below looks a bit complicated, it’s actually a relatively simple pie, it just requires that you pre-bake the crust so I give you pretty clear instructions for how to do that. And I also walk you through segmenting a grapefruit in case that’s a new skill. At the heart of it though, it’s a simple custard-based pie. The Lee Brothers suggest to cook the pie at 300 F, but I found this wasn’t adequate to actually set the custard, so I’ve adjusted it here so it should work for you at home. Maybe you’ll try it and let me know what you think? Maybe you’ll do a little something new with it and tell us about it here? Reading, reworking, passing it on. Adapting. Or teaching. Or whatever you’d like to call it, really.
I give instructions here for making the crust quickly with your fingertips. If you’re more comfortable and familiar making it in a food processor or have another favorite technique, by all means use that. The pie dough recipe yields enough for two pie crusts and you’ll only use one here, so freeze the other for a future pie you’re excited to try. Last, note that between the crust and filling, you’ll use 3 eggs total (although you’ll be doing some separating–see below). Please note, rest time for the pie crust isn’t indicated in the cook times above.
Adapted from: The Lee Brothers Charleston Kitchen
Sweet Rye Crust: (yields 2, 9-inch pie crusts)
To make the crust: Whisk first four ingredients together in a medium bowl. Using your fingertips, rub in butter until coarse meal forms and some small lumps remain. Drizzle vanilla extract over the dough and slowly sprinkle in cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, quickly stirring with a fork or your fingers until the dough becomes sticky and begins to clump together into a more uniform mass. Divide dough into half and form 2 single flat, chubby disks; wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day. Once chilled, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it is large enough to fill a 9-inch pie plate. Carefully transfer the dough to the pie plate and nestle into place. Leave 1-inch of overhang (if there’s a great deal of overhang, trim), then fold edges of the dough under and crimp.
Pre-bake the crust: To avoid a soggy pie, prebake the crust on 400 F: Using a fork, lightly prick the bottom of the crust. Take a sheet of aluminum foil and layer it on top of the pie crust, gently nudging it down so it’s snug on the bottom and the sides. Fill the foil-covered crust with dried beans or pie weights to hold it in place. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove pie weights/beans and foil. Brush crust with egg yolk to create a moisture seal (again, to prevent sogginess). Decrease the oven to 350 F, and place back in the oven to dry out further, another 5 minutes.
Make the filling: Finely grate the zest of one of the grapefruits (about 1 teaspoon loosely grated zest), and set aside. Segment the grapefruits: trim off the top and bottom so each end is flat. Peel the fruit by placing the tip of a sharp knife just inside the border where the pith meets the pulp and slicing down along the curvature of the fruit. Repeat until whole fruit’s been peeled. Then, over a bowl to catch the juice, gently cut the segments of pulp with a sharp knife by slicing towards the core as close as possible to the membranes that separate the segments. Preserve the juice. Gently strain the segments, reserving the segments and juice separately (you should have about 1 cup segments and 1/3 cup juice). Whisk the zest and salt into the grapefruit juice.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites and yolks together until they’re light and creamy in color, then whisk in the cream and melted butter.
In a medium bowl, mix the sugar, flour and cornmeal together. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture in thirds, whisking after each addition. Stir in the grapefruit juice until combined.
Pour the filling into the pie crust. Arrange the grapefruit segments in the custard (they’ll float to the surface as they bake). Transfer the pie to the oven and bake at 350 F until the top has nicely browned and the center jiggles stiffly, 35-45 minutes. Cool completely on a rack, about 20 minutes, before serving.
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.