Monday, December 1, 2008

my dirty little secret

Pretty much everything I cook or bake for guests is wonderful. I know that sounds arrogant, but it's true. And the thing is, my stuff isn't good because I'm amazing. Far from it. My food is good because I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses and I always play to my strengths. I also know the ingredients or else I don't work with them (experimenting in the kitchen is another story altogether). Most of the books in my kitchen are more about the science, history, and quality of food than they are compilations of recipes. I would never make something for a crowd unless I knew it was going to work out well. And it always does. I have sufficiently good skills, a solid understanding of kitchen chemistry, great familiarity with ingredients, and I also know whose recipes to trust and whose to test out first.

Many months ago I decided to have a fondue party for friends. I hadn't made fondue for ages, but I knew I could do it and the variables had never confounded me in the past. My boyfriend was incredulous that it would work out: apparently nobody in his circle of friends has successfully made fondue. He actively tried to talk me out of fondue and wanted greater assurances that I was an expert. I'm not. But I fearlessly bought a variety of wonderful, expensive French cheeses and just knew it would work out. And it did. The fondue was perfect. But I knew it would be.

But this post isn't about fondue, it's about Thanksgiving, where I was asked to make something that I knew wouldn't work out and it was beyond my control to do anything about. Let me preface here by saying that I love Thanksgiving and I have a stack of standby recipes that work. I do a great Thanksgiving feast. My turkeys are perfect (thank you, Alton Brown) and the sides are outstanding. And to end it all, I make an amazing pumpkin cheesecake. It is cheesecake perfection. Again, not because I'm amazing, it's just that I understand cheesecake. 

This Thanksgiving, however, I was not even remotely in charge of the menu. I was a guest. As a polite guest, I offered to make pumpkin cheesecake (see how I roll?). But I was informed that someone else had already taken cheesecake, yet would I be so kind as to come help cook on Wednesday? Of course I would. When I arrived, I was handed a recipe for a maple pumpkin pie and set to work. Everybody loves pumpkin pie. Everybody loves maple syrup. And everyone assumes I'm a good baker. But here's the dirty little secret: I cannot make pies. I make pumpkin cheesecake because it's easier than pie. And everybody assumes it's harder. For the life of me, I cannot bake pies. I don't even bother anymore. It's not the insides that perplex me, it's the crust. I buy crusts. I buy local, organic, butter crusts. But I buy them. And I do it without shame. I understand the chemistry of pie crusts; I have followed instructions to the T; I've tried manipulating every variable (shortening? lard? ice water? vinegar? egg? cream? I've tried it all); I've made pie crusts by hand; I've used a Cuisinart; and yet my crusts never work out.

So I was handed this recipe, in someone else's kitchen where I was a guest. And I panicked. I couldn't say no; I had to make the pie. And while I protested my abilities, everyone thought it was just false modesty. But there was nothing false about it. I saw that this recipe came from Martha Stewart and knew I was doomed. I have had more tragic experiences trying to make Martha's beautiful holiday creations than I care to recount. I don't even bother anymore. If the recipe came from Martha, I just don't do it. It's part of my plan to make sure everything I make is good. 

And even worse, I was given the recipe, but not the article that had the pictures and step-by-step instructions for making the pie (not that it would have helped, necessarily). Suffice it to say, the pie was terrible. The filling was good, but the crust was a chewy, dry, terrible mess. It looked beautiful (to the untrained eye), but it was awful. I could barely eat my own piece. And the thing is, I knew from the moment I started making the crust that it would be bad. I could see each step taking me further and further from the path of flaky goodness, I could see the gluten developing but I couldn't very well start over in someone's else's kitchen after I had already used 2-1/2 sticks of butter. Could I? I pushed through, made the pie and I served it with a slice of humble pie on the side.

As my family would say, Becahdawn ruined Thanksgiving. What kind of person ruins the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving? This experience has only reinforced my commitment to buying pie crusts from Bi-Rite. That, and making cheesecakes whenever possible.