A few years back, I did a brief stint in the lesbo-kitchen of Jennifer James. I’d been entertaining the idea of cooking school for a long time, and making desserts for Jennifer sounded like my dream job. I didn’t have the experience to merit the position, but Jen and I agreed on three basic principles – simplicity, quality, NO CHEESECAKE – and she handed me the reins to the dessert menu. Even better, she gave me the freedom to change it every two weeks.
I served Gale Gand’s chocolate terrine with almond brittle, lemon ice cream sandwiches with candied zest pressed into their sides, caramel pots de creme, fat wedges of David Lebovitz’s fresh ginger cake with butterscotch and sautéed pears, roasted pineapple shortcakes, Julia Child’s boca negra, indian pudding with honeyed whipped cream, and red chile ice cream studded with pralines. I made tarte tatin, fresh lemon tart, clementine sorbet, pear galette with almond cream, and countless other things.
Jen’s sous chef, Cheyenne, was exceedingly patient with my bumbling around her kitchen. I took up too much room on the stove, let huge vats of cream boil over, forgot to bake the chocolate terrine in a bain marie, left lethally sharp objects underwater in the dish sink, and generally made more of a mess than a professional pastry chef ever would. And I was slow, often finishing my work just before service began.
In time, things got easier and smoother, but after five months of working in Jen’s kitchen, I came to the decision that the life of a pastry chef was not for me. Mainly, it was too solitary a pursuit. It was baking, devoid of the reason that I love to bake: the people. What I love most about making food is being able to share it.
I was isolated even from other kitchen staff, who started their shifts later in the day. After eight hours spent peeling pears and separating eggs, I would place the fruits of my labor on a lonely rack and head home, hours before my desserts were served, or even plated. I had little idea whether they were loved or hated, except from the handwritten note that I’d find the next day, telling me how many more of each thing was needed. And then, in the steely quiet of morning, I’d turn on the ovens, get out the butter and eggs, and start again.
I never expected that a day spent baking would kill my desire to cook at home.
Of course, there were many good things. My favorite times were the first Tuesday nights of the new dessert menu. Kathy would bring in a tableful of our friends and we’d sit in the dining room. Cheyenne would plate one of each and send them out in leisurely succession so we could critique all six.
Ironically, the thing I liked least – the repetitiveness of the work – was also the most valuable. It’s no use pretending that I didn’t find peeling twenty-five pounds of apples and pears for a fall fruit crisp to be utterly monotonous – I did. It’s hard for me to imagine being a professionally trained pastry chef working in one of those restaurants where the dessert menu changes perhaps four times a year. (At some point, there is just nothing interesting about making chocolate pot de creme. But it is good, and people clamor for it, and so you must.)
But there are things that I learned about baking, which I could not have learned, probably not even in the course of my lifetime, with any less repetition. The first on this list is pie crust, a skill that most women learn from their mothers, if they learn it at all.
To be sure, there is a history of pie-making in my family. The earliest I know is of my great aunt Irene and her mother, who worked as cooks for an early twentieth century wheat harvesting crew. The workers stayed out in the fields for weeks at a time, sleeping and eating there until the harvest was done. Fourteen year old Irene and her mother fed them three hot meals a day, which they cooked on wood-fired stoves in the backs of wagons. Like the men, they slept under the stars. Unlike the men, they awoke before dawn to start on the bread and the pies.
This is just one of countless stories about my great aunt Irene and her famous pies. (Another tells of how she wrecked her new car trying to save a pie from its slide off the front seat.) So you might have great hope for my mother, and for me. But Irene’s brother was Orville, my mother’s father, and in that time, pie know-how was matrilineal, rarely passing from sister to brother, or from father to daughter.
So it was up to Lillian, my maternal grandmother, to pass on the pie gene. Youngest child of fourteen, raised on a Michigan dairy farm by her elder sisters, you’d think Granny would be a slam dunk. The family churned their own butter, for goodness sake. And probably there was some decent pie crust in her life. But by the time that she was teaching me, the three pies in her repertoire (lemon meringue, pumpkin, chicken pot-) started with the same basic ingredient: Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust. Anemic, sticky rounds of plastic-encased dough that might fulfill the technical requirements for making a custard into a ‘pie’, if a technicality is what you’re after.
I did have another chance. In my early twenties, I worked at the Tulane Street Deli, a lesbo-kitchen owned by two straight women, who had more repressed love for one another than they did for their pre-pubescent sons. Debbie was a great culinary talent from Texas, bitterly married to a mobile home salesman, and in possession of the pie gene. She turned out great quantities of perfect peach pies with fat double-crusts. With the allele as her guide, she relied on instinct: flour and shortening in a wide stainless steel bowl, cut together until it feels right, and mixed with water until it feels right. Under her supervision, I could manage it, but at home, I never got the proportions right, mixing up dough that was easy to handle, but baked into a leaden, tasteless receptacle.
In the next decade and a half, I made the occasional, torturous stab at pie crust, gingerly coaxing reticent dough between pieces of waxed paper. I don’t recall what recipes I used during that third of my life, so unmemorable were those obligatory rounds of pumpkin and pecan.
And so. Imagine the trepidation with which I placed pear frangipane galette on my first dessert menu at J. James. I’d had my eye on a David Lebovitz method for rustic tarts in Fine Cooking, which promised to take the mystery out of crust making. “My galette dough is a wonder,” David boasts. “Easy to mix and roll, it bakes up sturdy yet flaky.” A sturdy dough. Just what I had been needing.
And really, herein lies the abrupt end to a long story. David Lebovitz does not lie. His dough is a wonder. I used it perhaps a hundred times at the restaurant, and at least two hundred times since. The knowledge of so many pies has set itself into my bones.
Maybe times have changed. Maybe the inheritance of a good pie crust is no longer matrilineal. Maybe it’s passed along with the gay gene. In any case, thanks, David for the recipe, and thanks, Jen for the chance to perfect the method. And thanks, Xq28.
Adapted from David Lebovitz’s Sweet Galette Dough
It’s just flour, salt, cold butter and ice water – an ingredient list that you’ll find for any butter crust. But stay true to these quantities and the principles outlined in the instructions, and it’s hard to miss. Remember: 1) The butter and water must be very cold; 2) let the butter be big: you are done ‘cutting in’ when the largest pieces are the size of sugar cubes; and 3) it’s easiest to do this with a stand mixer if you have one. A food processor will work for these instructions, as well. Lacking both, the method can be accomplished by hand, but not as easily.
While this dough is perfectly suited for the galette, I use it for pie, and tarts, and tarte tatin. This dough freezes beautifully. It’s just as easy to make two or three batches as it is to make one, so why not store three or four crusts in the freezer?
11-1/4 oz. (2-1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
8 oz. (16 Tbs.) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
5 oz. (about 2/3 cup) ice water
1. Cut cold sticks of butter into 1/2 inch pieces and set them into the freezer to chill.
2. Mix the flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment.
3. Cut the butter into the flour on low speed in the stand mixer. Mix until the butter is well distributed and the largest pieces are the size of sugar cubes.
4. Add the ice water all at once and continue mixing on low speed just until the dough comes together (this will happen quickly).
5. Dump the contents of the bowl onto a lightly floured work surface, and gather it together with your hands. Divide the dough in half and form each half into a flat disc about four inches in diameter. Wrap the discs in waxed paper and place them in the refrigerator to chill for one hour.
Rolling out the dough
This is what works best for me in creating an evenly thick, round crust, and helps assure that the dough does not stick to the work surface. I find that it is much better than sawing away at the dough with a rolling pin. Try it and see what you think.
The dough should be very workable – pliable and not crumbly. If at any point you feel that the butter in the dough is melting, or it seems inordinately sticky, stop what you are doing and place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes to chill.
Lightly dust your work surface with flour and place the disc of dough in the center. Using the palm of your hand, flatten the disc a little.
Scatter a little flour over the dough and your rolling pin.
Starting closest to you, place the rolling pin on the dough about an inch from the edge. Roll firmly away from you, stopping about one inch before the rolling pin reaches the far edge.
Slide your hand under the round of dough and rotate it a quarter turn clockwise. Then repeat the step above. If the dough is beginning to stick to either the work surface or the rolling pin, dust it with a little more flour.
Continue rotating the dough and making a single pass with the rolling pin until you have achieved the desired thickness and diameter.
When you are ready to transfer the dough to the pan, either drape it over the rolling pin or loosely roll it onto the rolling pin and carefully unfurl it onto the pan.
Yields two large crusts.