Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Raising Pie

I walk into a cooking store in New York, a big one. I won’t tell you the name. Can’t blow my contact’s cover, we’ll call it Wm S. I casually walk over to a woman working in the baking section. I’ll call her Cupcake – what? It’s better than Muffin Top. “Do you know what I mean by a raised pie?” I ask her.

She eyes me carefully before answering. Maybe it’s the flour under my fingernails, but she decides to trust me. “Yes, yes I do.”

I try to restrain my excitement. “Do you have a raised pie mould?” I ask her in low tones.

She glares at me, indicating with her eyebrows, that I must wait for her supervisor to pass before she answers. “No, I don’t have one.” I’m crushed. If I can’t get one in New York . . . Cupcake draws me into a corner stacked with grape peelers and contact lens for potatoes. “You’re going to have to go to a real cooking store.”  Silence, Cupcake is hard nut to crack.

I won’t beg, but I might whine. “Do you know of such a store?” She just got the name out when there was a terrible bang. Someone had dropped a $500 digital mango sexer. All hell broke loose. I made my escape.

As I paid for my raised pie mould, I said to the cashier, “I knew if I couldn’t get this in New York, I couldn’t get it.” She smiled and said “If you can’t get it at ---- you can’t get it.”

The raised pie is perfect picnic food, a great way to repackage left over meat, and only moderately dangerous to prepare despite the story above. It requires hot water pastry, which needs to be worked quickly. Line your mould with pastry and fill it with your mixture of meat cut in small pieces, breadcrumbs, and seasonings; depending on the meat involved sometimes nuts are added, such as pistachio and in a traditional game pie you often see a hard boiled egg placed at the centre.

On goes the top, make a small hole and glaze it with an egg beaten with cream. Bake for 90 minutes at 350. Tent the top with foil if it is browning too much. After 90 minutes, remove the sides of the pie mould, apply the glaze to the sides and bake for another 30 minutes. Allow the pie to cool for about 3 hours. Put the sides of the mould back on. Take a cup of stock appropriate to your meat and two teaspoons of gelatin, soften the gelatin in a few tablespoons of stock in a saucepan, then add the rest of the stock and cook over a low heat until it is syrupy. Put a funnel in the hole in the top of the pie and slowly add the gelatin stock mixture. Chill the pie over night. Cut in slices and serve with chutney, pickles and a salad.

The pie in the header picture is the remainder of a ham the size of a Volkswagen. It’s my best after multiple tries. I am Madam Mowbray and this is my story.

Haunting Times
One of the first books I remember reading was a collection called Tales to Tremble By. It included Ambrose Bierce’s Middle Toe of the Right Foot, which I still recall vividly. Later on I trembled to Sardonicus by Ray Russell, W.W. Jacob’s the Monkey’s Paw, Bram Stoker’s Dracula of course, and the master M.R. James. Fear is fun when you are young.

That was then. Now I am bored by the eerie face at the window. The monster under the bed is made of dust and the horrible thing in the closet is a dress I’m too old for now. I just finished Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, a genuinely spooky tale. I ask myself, why does it work? I think it’s because, even though it is set in the early part of the last century, it puts its narrator in a very contemporary state: surrounded by people who mean him no harm, but who leave him to face the central menace alone.

We live in an era of hyper communication, but when I sit on the streetcar listening to people on their cell phones naming the stops we’ve just passed, I can't help feeling a lot of it is the contemporary equivalent of whistling past the graveyard. In 2010 the horror is in the loneliness.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Known To Be Useful

I recently came upon plastic tongs for $9.99. The packaging explained they were a tea bag squeezer. Really? $9.99? Kitchen gadgets that claim to work wonders when all they are is a superfluous substitute for a knife, or, as in this case a teaspoon pressed against the side of the pot, well they make me think of William Morris.

He said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Good sharp knives are a given. Here are five other kitchen essentials in no particular order:

• Two sets of measures – one for wet ingredients, one for dry, saves time.

• Peeler – Bonnie Stern says when you find a peeler you like, buy three because you’ll never find them again. (This is true of so many things.) My friend Naomi gave me a ceramic blade peeler years ago. I’ve gone through two more since and have another on standby.

• Wand blender, such as the Braun Multi-Quick. If you are pressed for kitchen space, this is the multi-purpose appliance to have.

• Melon baller, not just for melons anymore, nudge, nudge, wink, wink; it's useful for butter servings, when making pastry, serving ice cream, and I hate to think what else.

• Flat whisk for blending without incorporating a lot of air.

I Surrender
I’ll bet we all have books on our shelves that we know we’ll never read, but think we should own in the event that fish really is brain food or we ingest enough anti-oxidants to allow us to happily consume St. Augustine’s Confessions or NAME YOUR POISON. I have no quarrel with these books. They speak to our better aspirations even if we prefer to listen to a murder mystery.

The books I have decided to break up with are those that 1) annoy me, and 2) are too clever for me. They sit around the house with their bookmarks hanging out 30, 40, sometimes even 100 plus pages in. It’s the bibliographic equivalent of sticking out a tongue.

Of course I feel guilty. Do I in fact deserve these wagging extremities for not following them through to the final page? Doris Lessing said in her preface to my copy of The Golden Notebook that you shouldn’t force yourself to finish a book that doesn’t engage you, but you should return to it later. I have followed this advice. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was unreadable. Unreadable on the subway and (stop the insanity) on a stationary bike, but in the silence of a cottage without television or phone it was un-put-down-able.

With Udolpho the problem was environmental. The reason I will never come to the end of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To The End is I never came to care about his horrifically self-centred characters. They put the “so what” in solipsistic. Out you go and give me back my Tunbridge Wells bookmark. Incidentally Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections left me, unfinished, feeling the same way.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made several Best Books of the Decade lists I give up with regret at page 414. I am not smart enough to make the connections between the nine stories that make up this tour de force and I confess I skipped the two science fiction bits.

So what am I reading? An atrocious historical novel (for the clothes), a Venetian mystery (for the food), and I’m making my third attempt at Middlemarch in the hopes that George will dance with me this time. I recently heard an interview with Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty, etc. ) in which she explained how different she found it now from when she first read it at 17. I had the same experience with The Great Gatsby. (Can you see Doris nodding?) Eleanor Wachtel responded with a quote from Middlemarch that turned out to be the epigram in the next book I read, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, hard to ignore the Gods of Literature when they manifest themselves so spookily, no?