Tuesday, July 04, 2006

As American As...

I am not generally one to wave the flag. (Neither am I generally one to wax political, but it seems to me that Independence Day ought to be at least a little bit of a day of national introspection as well as a day of national celebration. Something about food follows.) Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to be an American and to live in the country that brought the world the Bill of Rights, cheese grits, and the Egg McMuffin, but it has always struck me as unseemly when people take too much pride in their nationality. When someone tells me how proud he is to be an American, I generally smile and nod, but what I really want to do is to ask him, "And just how hard did you have to work to, you know, be born here?" It's a good thing to feel a responsibility to one's homeland, but it's not such a good thing when nationalism makes you start to look at other people as having fewer rights than you have because they had the poor judgment to be born in a distant and poorer country.

I am troubled by almost any sense of entitlement, and too often the sense of entitlement is accompanied by a lack of any sense of responsibility. Even the European upper classes understood the concept of noblesse oblige, but some Americans seem to think that by waving a flag, they have paid the price for their freedom. I'm afraid I know too many people who believe that patriotism impels them to send other people and other people's children to fight and die but who are not willing to make any sacrifice -- not even so much as to pay their reduced taxes without whining -- themselves, and many of these people use the flag and their own exaggerated patriotism as a cover.

The sight of the flag still stirs most of us, myself included. And there are many, many people whose expressions of patriotism are entirely sincere, and God bless them. But if anyone tries to tell me that I am less of an American because I don't wave a flag or, especially, because I happen to think that the current administration has pointlessly spent lives and eroded our freedoms without increasing our security, then I intend to ask them what they have given up for America and why they think that they're better than anyone else because of where they were born. The last time I checked, it was self-evident that everyone is created equal, and not that some people are more equal than others.

On to a more gustatory note. I have no intention of usurping the place of apple pie as the great American dessert. I love apple pie in all its forms (though I am embarrassed to admit that I have never made or eaten one with cheddar: that's not the way Mom made it), and while I might lament that many of the great American pie apples are no longer commercially available, it is still possible to make a delicious apple pie almost any time.

However. Apples are a fall crop. They are best shortly after harvest, and they become less and less wonderful as the year turns, so that by summer, they're less than they used to be and less than they ought to be. By the time July rolls around, there are, in most of the country, superior summer fruit options, so it makes sense to give the apple a bit of a rest. In particular, the beginning of July is sufficiently close to the peak of the all-too-brief tart cherry season. Tart cherries make a superior pie, and they are associated (perhaps apocryphally, but still) with George Washington, our great national hero. For these reasons I declare (and, yes, I can do that) that on Independence Day, the great American dessert is the cherry pie. It's self-evident.

You can, of course, make cherry pie any way you want to, but the right way is to make a lattice-top crust using Pâte Brisée. And you can use any recipe for Pâte Brisée that you like, but here's mine:

Pâte Brisée

10 ounces King Arthur all purpose flour
10 ounces cake flour
1/2 t. kosher salt
3 sticks salted butter
Ice water

Combine the flours and salt in a bowl. Cut each stick of butter into 32 pieces (2x2x8) and toss them in the flour. With a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in the butter until it is the consistency of coarse meal with some small pieces remaining. Add about 3/4 cup of ice water and toss with a large fork. Add more water until the dough can be formed together into a ball. Knead the dough very briefly, then divide into four pieces, form each piece into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.

The dough can be used after two hours in the refrigerator, but it can wait for up to a few days, perhaps longer in the freezer. Each of the disks of dough you end up with will generously handle a nine-inch pie, and you could probably get three lattice-topped nine-inch pies out of this recipe. I like having extra dough, though, because Mom always had extra dough. She would roll the scraps out, cut into strips, sprinkle on sugar and cinnamon, and bake on a separate baking sheet alongside the pie. I do the same thing.

Most all-butter pie crusts have a tendency to burn in a hot oven, but I had no problems at all with this recipe, even though I did not shield the dough when I put it into a 450 degree oven. It was very easy to roll out, easy to work with, and admirably flaky.

A good cherry pie should not be overly fussy. Almond is a flavor that goes very well with cherries (Christine Ferber will tell you that Morello cherries, which, alas, are not so common over here, taste strongly of almonds.), so some almond extract is a good addition, but otherwise, it's best to keep it simple. Many recipes also recommend some lemon juice, but I found it unnecessary. The amount of sugar really depends on the tartness of your cherries. I did not find these proportions overly sweet.

A lattice crust should have a zig-zag edge rather than a straight one, but my zig-zag cutter has gone missing. Because the taste is straightforward (though delicious) and not overly sweet, good vanilla ice cream is a splendid accompaniment, particularly if you are eating the pie while it's still warm.

Cherry Pie

A rounded quart of tart cherries
3 T. quick-cooking tapioca
1 cup sugar
1/2 t. almond extract
1 T. butter
Pâte Brisée

Pit the cherries. Hopefully you will have just over four cups of them. Combine the cherries, tapioca, sugar, and almond extract in a bowl and let sit for at least fifteen minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Line a nine-inch pie plate with dough. Pour in the cherry mixture, top with a lattice crust, and dot with the butter. Put the pie on a baking sheet and into the oven. After ten minutes, reduce the heat to 350 and cook for an additional forty minutes to an hour, or until the juices are thick and the crust is nicely browned.

I had pitted all my cherries (except the ones I used for the quick dessert in my last post) at one go with my hand-dandy, super-duper new cherry pitter. Eight pounds in about half an hour! Accordingly, my cherries were all in ziplock bags in the refrigerator. It is an easy matter to add the sugar, etc., to the ziplock bag, shake, and let sit for a while. I had not, however, let my cherries come to room temperature, so the baking time was longer than expected. Fortunately, the end product did not suffer.

Also fortunately, I have two more bags ready to go for more pies. I believe that one could easily freeze one or more of these bags and then make a pie later with the thawed cherries, but I am compelled to pass along V.'s story about the time, forty years ago, when his mother was given a large quantity of tart cherries from a neighbor's cherry tree. She was told that she had only to pit them and freeze them, but when she defrosted them, she found that in addition to cherries, she had a quantity of worms. I am not sure that the discovery of worms would have deterred me much; after all, you can fish them out, and if you miss one: more protein. But she ended up throwing out all her cherries. My cherries were pretty clearly worm free, and one wonders what the orchard uses to make them that way. Still, I rinse them very thoroughly, and I don't worry much more about it. The simple joy of a good cherry pie is enough to erase many a doubt.


Anonymous lindy said...

Some pie.
I too have been making pie-no cherries though.
I would really just like to second your Independence day thoughts on national and ethnic pride. I think it is entirely bogus to be proud of something you had no hand in-like being born in a particular place, or with a particular ancestry.Maybe it's lucky, but it sure ain't an accomplishment.

It is nice and interesting to know where you came from, cook the food, sing the songs, dance the dances-but ethnic or national partisanship more emphatic than rooting for the home team in the World Cup seems to lead to nothing but the bad in the end.

And.as a mongrel,myself- I would like to point out the adaptive advantages of hybrid vigor. (For which I am, of course, entitled to no credit.)

12:33 PM  

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