Thursday, January 7, 2010

Snow Day with Lemon Pie

The frozen pond at the top of the hayfield. Not so common a condition here.

It's still snowing. That begins to seem obvious, but in Kentucky, snow and below freezing temperatures for days are news--not unheard of, but not normal either. In my busier past I had to go on to work anyway when it snowed, or go unpaid and cause others more work. Now, I can stay here at the farm feeling well kept and cozy while I do little chores, stretch, and bake, of course. There are few nicer feelings than being tucked up snug in your home while the snow flies and the kitchen fills with oven scents, like browning pie crust. (If that description doesn't give you aroma recall, you have been deprived.) I'm enjoying the luxury of being the one who stays home and bakes for those returning from the cold.

Poor hubby and mother-in-law had to go on to work at their desk jobs (Universities and banks don't give in to Old Man Weather so easily.), and father-in-law's cows require checking every day, regardless of the weather. Luckily, although it took them twice as long, they all returned safely on the slippery roads. Well, two of them briefly. A new calf that wasn't eating well this morning had to be checked on again in the evening. Hubby and father-in-law put on their boots (again), put the vintage Blazer in four-wheel-drive, and went back out into the snow. Mother-in-law and I had to wait dinner. Such is the life of a farm wife, she tells me. (Yes, I had a snack.)

Now to back up to the pie part. I wasn't sure this morning (before the snow started up again) that I would be home tonight. I was scheduled to be in Advance Techniques lab at culinary school whipping up chicken appetizers. Road conditions near departure time changed my plans, so today became the day to make the lemon pie that father-in-law had requested at Thanksgiving but didn't get because my oven died an electrically-fired death a few days before the holiday. Eating pie at home beats 120 round-trip miles of high anxiety any day.

Once I firmly and finally decided that I was going nowhere but to the kitchen, I needed a recipe. I've made dozens of lemon meringue pies at the little bakery/cafe where I used to work (Root-A-Bakers remains in my heart!), but not often enough to have memorized the recipe. With my cookbooks unavailable, my plan was to jump online and grab one. I would never have guessed how many subtle variations there are on lemon pie and how many usually reliable sites were devoid of the kind of recipe I had in mind. I wanted what I thought was the not-too-sweet, not-too-tart classic, made with lemon juice and water (no milk and certainly no sweetened condensed milk) and thickened with cornstarch only. To confuse myself further I contemplated and researched hot (or Italian) meringue.

After untold minutes puttering around search lists, I ditched my hot meringue plans and decided to choose a conventionally meringued recipe after lunch. (Never make important decisions when hungry is my motto.) Then while eating, I remembered that my cornstarch box has a lemon pie recipe on it. But upon inspection, I also remembered that I've made it before and found it skimpy in size and too sweet. So back to the computer and an executive decision on the straight-up formula I wanted with greater pan-filling quantities of ingredients. I have no idea where it came from at this point. I was so over the search by then that I just jotted down the ingredients while paying no attention to where in cyberspace I was. I mean, the recipe part wasn't supposed to be so hard.

Luckily the pie crust making (there's a whole post subject there) and the filling cooking and the meringue making went well. My only problem was with equipment, specifically a rolling pin. I called my mother-in-law at work to ask if she had one. She told me to use one of the two that have been hanging on the wall for the entire five and a half years that I've been coming to their house. Sigh. So I did.

Now, as to how the pie turned out? OK.
The filling was well set and balanced in flavor. The crust tasted nicely of butter and toasted flour but was way too crunchy. Concerted effort was required to cut through it, producing not so much a pleasant shattering as a hard fracturing. I've made hundreds of pie crusts, and that has never happened. (I blame the dark nonstick pan.) The meringue, although it shrank away from the crust in one section and beaded up a little on top, was fine, but I wished when eating it that I had gone with my first instincts and made the hot version, even if it would have required piecing together recipes and improvising. Always trust your instincts, especially if they're as dreamy as Italian meringue--billowy, satiny, stable.

The important outcome was that it tasted good once we forcefully broke the crust into bite size pieces. My father-in-law ate two servings, in fact. Plus I had a delightful time making it. As my husband pointed out, my afternoon of pie making on a snowy day is many a person's fantasy (including my own), and I got to live it. While all of the above is true, I remain disappointed. I have thoughts on my case of loser-itis, but they will have to wait until tomorrow.

The truth is that at this point I feel like a fraud, wondering how I ever made a living as a professional baker and why exactly I'm in culinary school. I mean, I thought I knew pie crust, at least. My husband reminded me that I'm not in my own kitchen with my preferred equipment that's preferred for a reason. Besides, the joy and love of baking and cooking really are more important than the perfection or lack thereof in the finished product. I truly do believe that. Even OK homemade still always tastes better to me than the factory version. And everyone has off days, etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, I've included a picture as page jewelry, but I won't even bother posting the recipe, because today I'm no expert. Definitely still a spurt. (Sorry, couldn't resist. At least I still have my sense of humor.) Someday, I'll come back to this pie, with proper pie weights (not doubled foil topped with a Pyrex casserole), a French rolling pin, my own glass pie pans, and an Italian meringue formula that makes me swoon. Until then I want to remember how it felt to savor the bright, tangy lemon filling and its airy topping while outside all was dark and wintry, like swallowing sunshine in the middle of snow. The thought to hold is that in January lemon pie, however imperfect, is like a promise of spring.

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