Thursday, November 22, 2007

but the humble pie tastes perfect

I pull out all the stops for the holidays. It's a cooking marathon and I'd like to think that I regularly cross the finish line with the upper ten percent of contestants. Perhaps hubris was my undoing.

Or maybe it's just because
sometimes things go wrong. And take a bunch of other things with them.

Over the past five days I have planned, shopped and scheduled. I have mise en placed with the best of them. This meal seemed destined for the record book. But no. And I'm not going to give that pansy-assed little whimper, "this has never happened before!" Of course it has. But not with cooking impotence this...potent. And never while sober. Whining is a slappable offense but one's limp culinary ego demands at least a bit of over-analyzing:

  • equipment issues - 1. When it calls for a full-sized food processor, the junior size won't do. My first double pie crust batch was processed into cookie dough crammed as it was into that small container. 2. When a stand-alone mixer is the tool specified, you might as well cede the fight. Kneading the dinner roll dough by hand was like coaxing cooked oatmeal into a diorama of Native Americans flipping off a party of Pilgrims.
  • ingredient issues - Weak yeast looks remarkably like virile yeast from the package; and no, it didn't need to be "proofed" because it was "instant" yeast, just like Cooks Illustrated requested. And I checked the date–it was fine. Hockey pucks instead of dinner rolls. Crimes against bread are worthy of kitchen exile. And the butter was so ready! What am I going to tell the butter? Tears swimming in its little yellow eyes...
  • recipe problems - My first America's Test Kitchen disappointment: you can NOT pre-bake a pie shell without pie weights! Try it like they suggest and you'll end up with crust sliding down the pie pan sides into an unappetizing pancake-y dough puddle. Swimming in melted butter (a quality incredibly appealing in most dishes and random encounters but never in pastry).
  • user error - I took my eye off the prize for five minutes and my "Pie Off" entry* got singed! It was the perfect double-crust apple pie. Crust rolled out beautifully (unlike the other one**) Tart and sweet apples coupling in a buttery, spiced, lemon-zested mound. Top crust evenly and ornamentally pierced, adorned with a wee cunning apple appliqué all egg-white-shiny and sugar-sprinkled. Edges charmingly well-fluted. Ten inches in diameter and practically hemorrhaging fruit goodness–it was magnificent. Didn't hear the timer. Didn't hear the fucking timer. Edges scorched. Appley-qué singed. I tripped over my feet with the finish line in sight. I brought my A Game and choked, people. CHOKED.
It's not that there weren't promising moments of ecstasy. The rice pudding is positively fuckable. The bread stuffing is outstanding and the mashed potatoes are so creamy rich it looks like you're wearing lip gloss when you're done eating them. The pumpkin pie holds great promise (I snort haughtily at your pumpkin pie derision, Mr. Damon). But mind-blowing, screaming culinary orgasm it ain't. Okay, so the finish line isn't the only thing, pleasure should be measured along the way...however, a meal like this should leave one's taste buds hankering for a cigarette. A whole pack even. Sigh.

I have high hopes for the second turkey. Yes, we got two. Brined and buttered as the first one was, I completely killed it. Completely. Twenty years of cooking good-to-great turkeys and I decimated my first turkey this year. This time I'll pay closer attention. It's 425°F for the first hour and 375°F for the second. Not the other way around, you dyslexic, flour-dusted moron.

Still, in spite of setbacks, I've managed to have fun. Real laughing fun. A tribute, without question, to Barbara's twenty-one years of influence. She's the real deal. Optimistic in the face of all things burnt and runny. Everything will taste great. The ingredients say so. And we'll be with friends and that's the reason Thanksgiving is a great holiday. There will be eating and drinking and making merry.

*My friend Eric is having a Pie Off. First ever. And I talked all sorts of sports-laced smack about taking down his soy-boy, weak-assed apple pie with my behemoth crusher pie. Stuff
this in your pie-hole, and so on and on. Folks, I'll be going down in flames with an entry that looks like it has third-degree burns. Not fatal, mind you. Just disfigured. Stop staring.

**The "cookie dough" pie crust had to be patched together like modeling clay. Then tediously smoothed to lose the craggy look. Of course, the pie that came strutting like top model down the pastry runway was the one that I didn't give a shit about. Leftover ingredients thrown into a small rectangular (pie are rounded) pyrex dish. I brought no love to this pie. Pierced the word FUCK into its overworked top crust. And it is perfect.

Thanksgiving Postscript: So, of course, everything tasted great. The second turkey revived my poultry-maven reputation. Our guests didn't care that half the pecan pie crust had slipped down under the filling like an annoying old stretched-out sock works its way under the arch of your foot. The dinner rolls never rose anywhere near what the recipe indicated but in a what-the-fuck-do-I-have-to-lose kind of way, I threw them in the oven and the cold little lumps blossomed into completely edible rolls. Methinks 'twas a Thanksgiving miracle. Oh, and Mike? the pumpkin pie was ALL that. Company was great, food was quite good (in spite of aforementioned setbacks) and all and all I fell asleep with a smile on my face.