Pie (Decorating) Anxiety

“I’m scared of pie,” the founder of the bakery where I work once admitted when I asked her why we didn’t make it. And legend has it that the second thing I said to my new employer when she took over said bakery, after “Hi, I’m Gretchen,” was, “Can we make pie now?”

So what I’m saying is–I’m not scared of pie. In fact, I’m cocky enough to have blogged about my “pie secrets.” But still surprises me how many people do feel the pastry fear. Then I  a couple of weeks ago, I decided to get fancy and DECORATE my pie for a community harvest potluck, and I took a walk in the shoes of pastry fear.

Here’s the thing. I’m not scared of pie because I started making it when I was about twelve. Add forty-five years of pie making, and…ten thousand hours? Probably not hyperbole in this case.

But decorating? Never. Closest I ever got was to fashion a few generic leaves, maybe some berries, or stars for July 4. Easy-peasy blackberry piesy.

I think these are Doughtree leaves, from the family, uh, Crustia.

I’m wise smart old enough to stay off Instagram, but nonetheless, images of gorgeous pies have made their way to my brain via Facebook, and friends who know me as a Pie Woman. So I finally got ambitious stupid curious. How hard could this decorating thing be?

But as soon as I rolled out that top crust, my stomach clenched with anxiety. Should I stop here and go watch a video? Should I be rolling this onto wax paper? Why did I decide to diverge from my happy, thoughtless pie path?

Leaves. Okay. I got this. But not without help. And since the visual arts are not my strength, I decided to look up images of maple and oak leaves and then copy them onto cardboard as templates.

Did I mention visual arts are NOT my thing?

So far so…well, let’s go with “okay.” But it needs a little something more. Braids! Who can’t do braids? At least I didn’t have to google images for that.

Rustic is good. Rustic is good. It’s a PIE. Rustic is good.

Better. But let’s add a few o’ those trademark generic leaves, eh?

Cautiously optimistic…

OK. This is as good as it’s gonna get. Let’s bake this puppy!

Blackberry-strawberry, in case you were wondering.

Lessons learned:

a) Do use templates. Just cut them a little smaller next time. Or buy cutters in cute shapes. (But I’m too cheap for that.)

b) Do use wax paper to avoid mushing your cutouts. Chill or freeze them before applying.

c) Chill, but don’t freeze your braid strands. (Ever tried braiding frozen dough?)

d) Stay humble. In baking, as in life, there is always something to fear…and learn from.

Will I keep decorating pies? Probably, though only on occasion. I’m a happy imperfectionist, and pie is, in my opinion, meant to look rustic, so I don’t NEED to decorate. But I think it’s good for me to brush up against that fear now and then. And the compliments are nice too.

Why Work Parties Make The Best Reunions

I haven’t attended a college reunion since my 10th, way back in…never mind…but the main memory I have of that time is of painting a house in Dorchester, Mass. No drama, just good, wholesome fun—and a wonderful chance to reconnect with folks while doing something more constructive than drinking.

Back when the Mate and I lived in North Carolina in the 1980s, we were building a New Hampshire-style timber-frame barn together in our spare time. Well, he was project manager; I was definitely unskilled labor at the time. But boy, could I organize a work party! They were always potlucks, always featuring a cookie we came to call “barn bars,” and always well attended by folks who didn’t have enough manual labor in their lives…or maybe did, but doing someone else’s, in a festive atmosphere, was a whole different, fun animal.

We grew so fond of “barn bars” that I made them into our wedding cake. Here’s the 25th Anniversary version.

Last summer our cousins in Vermont, who are young parents, were struggling a bit to run their farm, take care of their kiddos, and make some headway on the little house they were trying to restore in order to move out of the family-owned (and often occupied) farmhouse. The Mate proposed a work party to get their home at least roofed in for the winter. Sons One and Two were in the neighborhood, and they joined in, with other cousins and friends. They worked for a week and had a BLAST.

The Mate in his element

Since this was in August, I couldn’t get away from the bakery, but I pouted and plotted from afar…

…so this year? Vermont Family Work Party II is NOW. Which is why I won’t be blogging for a little while. But don’t worry; that cyber-silence you hear will be punctuated with ringing hammers.

(Who am I kidding? With my skill set, I’ll most likely end up as Crew Chef.) 

What do work parties need at the end of a long day? PIE! (And maybe some barn bars too.)

But I’m still bringing my work gloves just in case.

Work parties. Have you been to one? Have you held one? If so, please share. If not–what are you waiting for?

One Week After…Not Quite Ready To Leave The Bubble

I finally turned on the news today, a week after the election. I lasted exactly 11 minutes before turning it off again.

I know. I’m a wuss. I promise I’ll get tougher. But right now I want to stay in my bubble a little longer…a bubble I created, by scheming behind my husband’s back for six months.

…for a surprise birthday party, people! What were you thinking? Really! For shame.

Yeah, my Mate turns 70 in two weeks. I figured the only way to truly surprise him was to have the party two weeks early. Since that date coincided with a three-day weekend (thank you, Veterans!), my Evite received many Yesses.

I sent that Evite out first in May. I’ve been party-planning ever since. The triumph of the surprise, I knew, would be the arrival of Son One (all the way from Puerto Rico) and Son Two (from Vermont)  And when election day blew up in our faces happened, the anticipation of that surprise kept me going like a warm stove in an otherwise frozen house. Like a light at the end of a tunnel. Like…oh, just pick a simile, would you? You know what I mean.

The only problem? I couldn’t share that anticipation with my Mate. Miserable as we both were last week, my misery was alleviated by hope and love, and his…well, his had to wait till Friday at 2 pm, when Sons One and Two snuck in the back door and said, “Hi, Dad.”

At that, my Mate entered the bubble with me. Finally.

I’ll get back to regular posting soon enough. I’m already hard at work on my writing, and the other components that make up the life of a baking ex-teacher.

We'll think about the election tomorrow...or maybe the day after that...

We’ll think about the election tomorrow…or maybe the day after that…

But for now…I think I’d like to stay in my bubble just a few more days. Can you blame me? There was lots of love and lots of pie.

Good Pie, Good Pie, Until We Eat Again

What’s better than pie? Pie with a nod to Shakespeare.

I’m traveling now, back east for my annual Girlfriend Get-together. Which means that, before I left, my summer life was even more hectic than usual. This is how I spent Friday, my “day off”:

Good pie, good pie.

Good pie, good pie.

I don’t know the folks whose wedding I baked for, only that they were both men. I baked happily in my own kitchen, putting the extra sweetness of good wishes in with the blackberries and nectarines.

That crazy rush behind me, now I’m sitting in the airport thinking about extra sweetness. It’s easy to find; even easier to increase. In a jostling crowd of strangers (even weirder-feeling when you live on an island with a year-round population of 2,400), I look for the little details that bring me pleasure.

That TSA guy has awesome dreadlocks. (I tell him so; he smiles.) That young red-haired woman is reading To Kill a Mockingbird. (You go, young woman!) That large family appears to be heading to Mexico, maybe on a family visit; I love the way the younger kids seem to be reassuring their elders. That Samoan-looking woman smiles directly at me; maybe she’s doing the same thing I’m doing.

Wherever you are today, whether you’re having a mad-rush kind of day, or humdrum-dull, or peaceful , or sad, may you find some sweetness, or bring some to someone who needs it–or both.

I’ll be back in a week.

 

That Wicked, Wonderful Weed: My Blackberry Obsession

They’re ba-ack.

They’re everywhere.

Blackberries.

These days I can’t ride my bike in increments longer than 100 yards without wanting to stop again. “Ooh…look at those clusters! These are definitely plumper than that last batch I just stuffed in my face.” Or: “Hmm, those were a bit sour. Better stop for some sweetening-up.”

Bike gloves and blackberries: made for each other

Bike gloves and blackberries: made for each other

But even more than roadside grazing, blackberries mean one thing to this girl: PIE.

It’s not that I need to be eating blackberry pie, or any kind of pie, on a regular basis.  I work in a BAKERY, OK? But this time of year, the urge to collect berries for my freezer is like a squirrel’s to store nuts: I NEED them. The feeling is strangely desperate. What would happen if the summer passed and I ended up with a freezer free of blackberries?

Ahh....all is well.

Ahh….all is well.

I don’t know. I can’t imagine such desolation.

For 10 1/2 months of the year, blackberries are a noxious infestation of thorny horror. Ask anyone who’s tried to clear them, or hike through them, or pretty much go anywhere near them. But during blackberry season, they suddenly represent bounty: the sweetness of sharing, the safety of plenty in the cold times, the memory of years and years past where I did just the same…reach for the berries, freeze the berries, bake the berries…repeat.

Is there a lesson in there? Probably. But I’m too busy picking and baking to figure it out. Anyone?

Confessions of an Imperfectionist: On Second Thoughts, I’ve Nothing to Confess

I am proud to call myself an imperfectionist. Are you one too? Take this simple test to find out.

  1. When frosting a cake, do you skip the “crumb layer” and just start slathering that stuff on there?
  2. When sewing, do you skip the basting step, and use as few pins as possible?
  3. When doing carpentry, do you conveniently forget the mantra, “Measure twice, cut once”?
  4. When practicing a piece of music, do you more often than not say “good enough” and move on?
  5. Do you like yourself anyway?

If you answered No to any of these, congratulations–you have standards. If you said Yes, welcome to my world. Imperfectionists unite!

Nothing like working in the worlds of food, crafts, or arts to remind me how much I don’t care to push myself that extra step. After fifty-some years, however, I have found the one area where I can’t stop polishing, tweaking, fixing, de- or re-constructing: WRITING.

It’s hopeless. I’m a words girl. When it comes to words on the page, good enough is never good enough.

I think I know why. Writing was my first success, something people have told me I’m good at since grade school. Therefore continuing to improve has a high promise of reward, and I think the urge is deeply rooted in my psyche. Adult stuff like sewing? I’d have to work WAY too hard to get any compliments there.

(courtesy bernijourney.wordpress.com)

(courtesy bernijourney.wordpress.com)

Come to think of it, I’ve had compliments on my pies from a young age too. So there you go.

Yup--perfect.

Yup–perfect.

Am I on to something? Anyone else out there a perfectionist in only SOME areas? What are they, and what accounts for their special place in your otherwise imperfectionist life? Note: all you perfectionists out there, feel free to chime in too.

Oh Boy, Another Life Lesson: My Love-Hate Relationship With French Macarons

Am I the only one out there who HATES doing things I’m not good at?

Hatesss it, Precious.

It’s the reason I don’t play volleyball. Or badminton. Or softball. No one ever taught me the fundamentals, therefore I fundamentally SUCK at all three. [Softball, are you kidding me? That ball hurts when you catch it wrong! I’ll stick with cross-country, thanks.]

This attitude, I just this week realized, extends far beyond the playing field and into the kitchen. I’ve always shrugged my shoulders at French cooking, after a youthful flirtation with Julia Child. “Too fussy,” I’ve always said. “Too many steps.” For decades, I’ve stuck with American, which in my case means about a third Asian, a third Mexican, and a third Mutt food. [Can you say tuna-cheddar eggrolls with spicy salsa?] 

And dessert? German, baby. Or good old American PIE.

You’ve heard me bitch about the new croissant dough we’ve been making at Holly B’s Bakery. My boss and I have taken to calling it “Croissant-fit” and joking about charging people to come make it for us–free workout, folks! But the actual steps of croissants aren’t tricky to follow. All you need is muscle.

Enter the French Macarons. Not the coconut thingies; these macarons are made with ground-up almonds and egg whites and sugar and human tears. We’ve never made them at my bakery before, and we’re getting a lot of compliments on them. But they make me hate my life.

These little boogers. (photo by Stephanie Smith)

These little boogers. Gluten-free. Also evil. (photo by Stephanie Smith)

They are notoriously, ridiculously, insanely picky to make. The ingredients have to be not just measured but weighed. Don’t even think of starting to beat your egg whites until your boiling sugar has reached 239 degrees–but don’t let it go past 244. And that’s just the mixing. Then the plopping-out-of-the-pasty-bag part (can you tell I’m new at this? I’m sure there’s a French word for it) is the trickiest of all.

Don’t squeeze out too much. Don’t tilt your bag. Don’t hold it too high or press too low. Don’t drag the tip. Don’t swirl. Just…DON’T.

The other day when I got done trying to follow these directions, my boss noticed my face or my body language or my general loathing of existence. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she said kindly. “They’re hard.”

“I just HATE not being good at this,” I blurted. And there it was. Gretchen the Proud Pie Maven has met her match in a crumby little cookie. Steep learning curve in baking? Moi? 

So THAT’s why I’ve avoided French cooking all these years!

Watching the little suckers in the oven, I confess to feeling some pride despite myself. Hey, they’re puffing! They’re not cracking! Okay, most of ’em have “nipples” where I dragged the pastry bag tip, but look, there’s a smooth one! Kinda cute really…maybe a nice lemon butter cream in there…or cinnamon…?

So, yeah. Another Life Lesson, at age fifty-something. If you force yourself to do something you’re not good at, two things happen: 1) you get humble, and 2) you improve. And both of those things are good.

Bring on the macarons. But please let me keep making pie too. A girl’s got her pride.

Instant Vacation: The “Kids” Are Home

“Happy Thanksgiving!” “Merry Christmas!” I had a tough time keeping myself from calling out these greetings as I hiked with my family. Last Friday. January 15. But you can’t blame me for being confused. That was the day The Mate and I were having.

Sons One and Two (25 and 23) arrived in time for dinner Thursday night–a gift in itself, since we hadn’t expected them until the 9 pm ferry. For dessert we ate the leftover cake from my Mate’s birthday, which I’d been saving in the freezer. (This cake is SPECIAL: 15 layers and as tall as a tophat.)

The next morning I got up early and made our traditional Christmas morning Danish (from Holly B’s cookbook, of course). When the “boys” finally arose, it was time to open presents–okay, no stockings this year, but then we had no Christmas tree either. (I mean, it IS mid-January. I put lights on our houseplants.)

Dinner was full-on Thanksgiving: turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce (thanks to a friend who had some cranberries in her freezer–try buying ’em fresh in January!), roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and Yorkshire pudding. (Yeah, sounds weird, but we like it better than stuffing.) We couldn’t quite face pie after all that rich food…but I made one next day, just ’cause.

Christmas Danish, baby.

Christmas Danish, baby.

‘Cause why? Vacation, that’s why! In my book, when you’re down to rare sightings of your offspring, ANY time with them becomes instant fun-time. Grocery shopping? Sure! Folding laundry? Absolutely! Our best time on this “holiday” weekend wasn’t even that hike; it was working together to make a new compost pit.

I don’t have any digital baby pics of our boys, and I don’t like to violate their adult privacy by posting current pics, so I’m compromising by posting one from 8 years ago. They look a bit different now. 🙂

Gotta grab those precious moments while you can...sometimes literally.

Gotta grab those precious moments while you can…sometimes literally.

So, did I get any writing work done since my last post? How ’bout choosing that new blog theme?

That’s a big fat No. Do I care? An even fatter, happier, more grateful No. Merry Thanksmas!

My 18-layer Cake: When Personal Bests Turn Ugly (But Still Delicious)

I set a world record last week! Well, a personal best anyway. But if the winners of a US-and-a-teensy-bit-of-Canada baseball championship can call themselves World Champions, I figure I’m entitled.

18 layers. That’s 18 cake layers. But in between each layer was a thick coating of apricot puree and an even thicker layer of chocolate butter cream, so really you could call it 54 layers if you wanted to. No objection here.

Back story: The Mate’s birthday falls right around Thanksgiving (this year, the Tuesday before). I’ve been making his birthday cake every year since before he was my Mate–approximately 36 years. (I know I missed one sabbatical year, but I think that’s all.) I first made it back when I was wooing him and knew he had an affinity for apricots, since he was raised in the part of California where they grow (or used to; it’s Silicon Valley now). 36 years later, I’d say that little trick worked.

But back to last week. I was in our cousins’ kitchen, using their implements, but I’d brought my own German cookbook along. The recipe for Prinzregententorte (Prince Regent Cake) is, as you might guess, a little tricky, and I haven’t managed to memorize it in 36 years. I usually go with 2 1/2 times the recipe in order to end up with an impressive 15 layers, baking mere spoonfuls of batter in shifts.

But listen, children: Pride Goeth Before a Fall. This year, in the middle of bragging to my cousins about how awesome this cake was and how long I’d been making it, I distracted myself so much that I forgot…to add…the flour.

Even worse: I didn’t even figure out WHY the layers were baking so funky–or not baking–until I’d used up 6 layers’ worth.

Oops. Duh. Sigh. Now what? Admit defeat and serve up a humble 9-layer cake, after all that bragging?

Inconceivable. I made more batter. Quite a bit more. The result (warning: these snapshots were NOT taken with a blog post in mind, so please don’t judge too harshly):

cake1

I know, right? Looks more like a tophat than a cake!  But just in case you’re not buying the 18 layers…

cake2

Two days later was Thanksgiving. I baked the pies, plus another (more reasonably-sized) birthday cake for one of the cousins. We didn’t need any of it; we had Cakezilla. But tradition is tradition.

pies

Next year: 20? It could happen. I’m getting awfully absent-minded.

Favorite cooking disasters that turned out better than planned? Craziest birthday cakes ever? Please share!

 

 

Good Pie, Good Pie, Until We Eat Again

“Let me give you my card.” That’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say.

It’s not that I didn’t think of myself as a professional when I taught high school. It’s just…who needs a teacher’s card, for goodness’ sake?

“For all your Shakespearean quotation needs…”

Right.

And now that I work at Holly B’s Bakery (“Holly’s Buns Are Best”) I need one even less. Everyone who’s ever been to my island, and many who haven’t, knows Holly B’s.

But last fall I was invited by a friend to bake pies for her daughter’s wedding. Since I am a Pie Maven, and since pie is one of the few items Holly B’s does not bake, I happily said yes.

The wedding’s in August? Sure, no prob. What else could possibly be going on in August?

I worked with the bride to create a list of a dozen pies with assorted fillings and crusts. Then I pretty much forgot about the gig for the next several months. Until we received a wedding invitation for the son of a dear friend in Oregon, for August 23. At that point it occurred to me that I’d never written in the actual date of the pie-wedding.

Sure enough: August 23.

OK. We can do this.

Remember: pies aren’t cakes. Sure, you can make a wedding cake a day or two ahead…even weeks, if you freeze the layers. Pies? No way. Gotta be FRESH. At least my pies do. I had to be able to deliver them that morning, then somehow get myself onto a ferry early enough to drive the 6 1/2 hours to Eugene for the 3:00 ceremony.

The Mate, of course, wanted to drive down a day to two ahead like a civilized person. But after investigating various combinations of bus, train, and even plane rides to get me to Eugene, we finally concluded that the only way was to take the 6:25 boat together, then drive down together (otherwise we’d end up driving home separately as well).

Did I mention what a great guy The Mate is? He accepted the mission.

So I made my shopping lists and got my materials together. Then, just a week before Pie Wedding Day, I had this thought: maybe I should have a business card!

It’s not that I really want to start a new business venture, baking on commission. It’s just…well…if someone really liked my pies, and that someone wanted to order one, well…I do hate disappointing people. Right?

So. Cards. Let me remind y’all that I am not only a techno-wuss, but extremely…let’s see, what’s the opposite of gifted?…in the graphic arts arena.

Luckily I AM blessed with two valuable gifts: punnishness, and good friends.

The tag line for the card came easily to me. And the design came easily to my friend Susan. The proud result:

Gretchen's Good Pie2

Oh, and the pies? Yeah, I got this.

Fillings prepped--check.

Fillings prepped–check.

 

Blackberry lattice, Strawberry-Apricot, and...oh shoot, what's that other one?

Blackberry lattice, Strawberry-Apricot, and…oh shoot, what’s that other one?

Add a little lovin' from the oven...

Add a little lovin’ from the oven…

To conclude this non-story: all 12 pies were delivered safely in the baker’s hours of the wedding morning. The Mate and I made the ferry, and he did most of the driving so I could catch up the sleep I’d missed from baking late and rising early. He is still speaking to me. And we made the Oregon wedding with no problem, and much love.

...et voila! Pack those babies up!

…et voila! Pack those babies up!

And now–will I start practicing saying “Let me give you my card?” I’ll have to get back to you on that. I really have no ambitions to start a new business.

But if it happens–I’ll be ready.

So here’s a fun question for y’all to chew on: if you were ever to dream of having your own business, what would it be? What would your card say? If you already have one, what DOES your card say?