Last Sunday while W. Crawford had my bike up in the gurneys, I pranced into the kitchen with a bucket of blackberries and had a pastry epiphany. Later, the grease washed from his hands, W. Crawford lay down his fork and looked at me. "What," he said, "did you do?" My standard pastry, though flavorful and layer-flaky, was sometimes won't-return-your-calls flaky. I chalked it up to my ornery devotion to butter-&-nothing-but, and didn't try to fix the matter. But this pastry, laced over bubbling blackberries, was -- I almost can't believe it still -- perfect.
When I was thirteen, I made pies with Crisco. We didn't know about trans fat back then, and Crisco was cheap and tenderized the flour into shattering flakes. With the aid of a "no-fail" egg-and-vinegar pastry recipe, I made lovely pie crusts and considered myself a perfectly competent, eminently marriageable Nice Mennonite Girl (NMG). I even used the dough scraps for cinnamonjigs.
One day I ate a slice of rhubarb pie made by my Dread Pirate Robert's mother. She's one of those bone-china-elegant lawyer-sharp perfectly-appointed Mennonite women whose everyday speech is heavily bespattered with other languages and references to the grand old books that line her wisteria-shrouded study. I once saw her in denim. I was certain she could tell that my vinegar-egg pie crusts were really just training-wheels, the culinary version of rubberpants. I started leaving out the vinegar and egg, and after a few false starts, managed just fine and even retained my partially-hydrogenated NMG status, for the moment.
Mama has always had a remarkable nose for faulty imitation, either in boys or oleomargarines, and it wasn't long before we cleansed our kitchen of all such mistakes and went on in buttery good health. The flavor of my crusts improved dramatically, but I found them less predictable. The pastry -- while perfectly layered with butter strata -- produced tough unbreakable flakes. For a period of time, I even made whole-wheat all-butter pie crusts, but I decided the health benefits weren't worth the texture/flavor sacrifice, and read that unfermented whole grains are difficult to digest. Back to the white flour, and onward in my quest for pastry perfection.
After college and a glorious lard-crusted stint in Hungary, I met an unfortunate hobo on the rebound and went in for his grated frozen butter technique. Before too long, I packed up all my worldly possessions and rolled out West. On the way I adopted two cats from my cousin and visited my long-lost cook-turned-pastor Aunt L., who pinches the butter into flakes with her fingers, rolls the dough out partially, folds it in quarters, and rolls it out again for something approaching the flakiness of a laminated puff-pastry dough. The pinching was time-consuming whenever I tried it, but she managed to get up on Thanksgiving morning and make a dozen such pies before the the turkey went in the oven.
I made some mighty fine pastry in the tenacious little shack in the Wallawa Mountains, what with the (yes, literally) icy room temperature and the woodfired cookstove. Down in the moderate climes of the coastal region, I grated if I had frozen butter, and pinched if I didn't. I made vegan pies for my roommates, and lactard-friendly pies for my lactard friends. Everybody was happy. Except for me -- where was my perfect pastry, my elusive rolling-pin-up starlet ? Had anyone out here ever met an NMG?
Sunday, then, a bucketful of blackberries on the counter and my dear little bicycle up in the gurneys, I leisurely went about the pie-making. I had bread flour and non-frozen butter on hand -- not my ideal set-up, to be sure.
To be continued.