A Stab at Pie, or Life’s Constants

Monday Morning Musings

Saturday was Pi Day, Sunday was the Ides of March, and tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. What do these things have in common? Through food and art, my husband and I paid homage—of a sort–to all of them this weekend.

Confession: math was almost my least favorite subject in school. I can’t remember numbers, and I tend to skip over the graphs, charts, and number parts of any article I read. But I do know that Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. (Gosh, I hope that’s right.) It’s a constant—that is, it’s fixed and doesn’t change, the opposite of variable. (In case anyone is interested, my favorite episode of the TV series Lost was the episode called “The Constant,” in which we learn that Penny is Desmond’s constant throughout time—and a constant is apparently necessary when time traveling.) Pi is also an infinite number 3.1415. . . .

Here in the US, March 14 is sometimes written as 3/14 (month, day). With the year added, it becomes 3/14/15, so this year Pi Day was extra special.

Pi Day was not a thing when I was growing up. I don’t remember anyone mentioning it or celebrating it, so I decided to look into when Pi Day started.

It turns out that although pi has been know for thousands of years, Pi Day was not invented until 1988 when physicist Larry Shaw of San Francisco’s Exploratorium created it. I found several great articles about Pi Day. This one by astronomer Phil Plait for Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog is a wonderful post of Pi facts, including some myth-busting information. OK, it’s possible I skipped some of the real math in it, but it was still interesting.

Danica McKellar’s Youtube video on pi and Pi Day is also great fun.

So I was going to bake pies on Friday for Pi Eve for my husband, the high school math teacher—because math and pie. If we can have Pi Day, then why not Pi Day Eve? However, it turned out my husband had a school event that night, so I didn’t bake a pie then. We also had plans on Saturday. One of these plans was to see a performance of Macbeth at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. (If you’re in the area, it was an exciting and well-staged production, a display of sight and sound. Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth was particularly good.) Modern western theater had its inception in the dramatic works of the ancient Greeks, who as I mentioned above, also most likely first calculated pi. And pies were eaten in the time William Shakespeare. So pi is linked to Shakespeare through pie. Or pi is linked to theater. Either way. Are you following me? Anyway, the pies of Shakespeare’s time were often meat pies. Sometimes the pie crusts, called coffins, were merely shells to hold the meat fillings.* William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, set in eleventh-century Scotland, and he also wrote the play, Julius Caesar, which includes the soothsayer’s line “Beware the ides of March.” Both plays involve tyrants, nation building, and stabbings. Lots of stabbing, lots of blood, and death. Well, they’re tragedies, after all. (See ancient Greek drama.) Pies appear in Hamlet and gruesomely in Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at a banquet, which may or may not have featured pies.

On Sunday, the Ides of March, we went out again. This time, to see the movie, ’71, about an English soldier who gets left behind during a skirmish in Belfast in 1971. It was an intense movie, heart-pounding intense, but very good. As my husband and I agreed, the action took place in Belfast at a particular time and place, and that situation was unique. Nonetheless, many of the themes were universal and could apply to wartime settings during any period in history. As it is set in Northern Ireland, I told my husband it was our St. Patrick movie, albeit a grim one. There was a stabbing in the movie, too.

In ancient Greece, ancient Rome, eleventh-century Scotland, and 1970s Belfast, people celebrated and ate, as do we. It is a constant. As living beings, we must eat to live. Sometimes we eat pie. As humans we are also compelled to create works of art to express our emotions in music, dance, poetry, drama, and visual art. We also have the physical brains and the imagination to make abstract leaps, to think about math and science.

I baked my Pi Day pie (Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie) on Sunday the 15th of March, the Ides of March. At dinner we had zucchini, which I had “spiralized”. The ancient Romans would not have zucchini or tomatoes, but they did have olive oil and garlic. (Top it with slivered Parmesan.) And zucchini is green, so there you go. Pi Day, Ides of March, and St. Patrick’s Day—connected through history, food, and art.

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Perhaps my reasoning is circular, but it ends in pie. Sometimes we all need a bit of sweetness in our lives. That’s a constant. Enjoy!

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie


I used Mark Bittman’s “Sweet Piecrust” (from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian). Here’s a simplified version:

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (about 5 oz.)

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

8 Tbsp. butter, cut into about 8 pieces

3 Tbsp ice water, plus more if necessary (I always need a bit more).

Combine dry ingredients in food processor, pulse once or twice to mix. Add butter and process just until the butter is mixed into the dry ingredients. It should look like cornmeal. Bittman says about 10 seconds. I usually pulse it off and on. I keep the mixture in the food processor and add the water. Process only until the mixture begins to come together. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic. Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes. It can be made several days in advance or frozen.

Roll and press into pie pan. I just now noticed he says to refrigerate the piecrust for about an hour before filling. Ooops. Well, I’ve never done that, and it seems to be fine.


Apples: I used 4 large apples and 1 smaller one, peeled and sliced thinly. My food processor blade worked well for this.

¾ cup, more less to taste, dried cranberries

¼ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

¼ tsp. ginger

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Butter to dot top (I’m not sure if this is necessary or not. The recipe I looked at used 4 Tbsp. I used about 11/2. I think you can eliminate it, if you want to reduce the fat a bit.)

Crumb Topping:

¾ cup flour

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

5 Tbsp. butter

½ cup ground nuts (I planned to use walnuts, but I already had almonds ground. Yup, that’s how I do things.)

Combine filling ingredients together in a large bowl. My apples were very bland, adjust spices and sugar to your own tastes and needs. You should have enough to mound into a pie plate.

Combine crumb topping ingredients. I used my fingers to blend the butter in. Cover top of pie with the topping.

Bake at 350° for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If the top gets too brown, cover it loosely with foil. The pie should be bubbling when it’s ready.

*For a history of pie, see Janet Clarkson, Pie: A Global History(London: Reakton Books, 2009).

I also discuss pie in my History of American Cooking (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

Beware the Hammantaschen?

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: What man is that?

Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

–William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2

 So. . .I just realized that this year Purim falls on the Ides of March. I guess that means you should be extra wary while consuming your wine and hope you don’t choke on your Hamantaschen. And stay away from theaters. And people with knives. You know, just in case.

The Ides of March simply means the middle of the month. Other Roman months also had Ides, but Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE. So that event—and then Shakespeare’s words–imparted a meaning to the date that had not existed before.

True confession: Despite a Ph.D. in history, I’ve never had a course in ancient world history. My lack of knowledge of Greek and Roman history is only matched by my even greater lack of knowledge about other ancient civilizations. I did have a book of mythology by Edith Hamilton that I used to like to read when I was a child. I think I “borrowed” it from my older sister. Yes, I was a nerdy child. What I have learned about ancient Rome I’ve gathered from my own browsing through texts, watching I, Claudius (I’m convinced that Claudius sounded exactly like Derek Jacobi and spoke with an English accent), and hearing my daughters discuss the information they acquired in their Latin classes in high school. Shout out to their wonderful Latin teacher!  Woot! I also witnessed a couple of “reenactments” of historical events in Rome and Pompeii during a trip to Italy with Latin students from my daughters’ high school. That was the same trip in which I discussed sex in ancient Rome with a grad student chaperone, and the girls’ Latin teacher and I compared the Rape of the Sabine Women with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (Clearly, I transitioned from nerdy child to nerdy adult.)

Second True Confession: I haven’t read Julius Caesar since I was in ninth grade. I do remember reading some of Calpurnia’s lines to my then boyfriend, now husband’s Caesar. And for some reason, “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look” became a favorite phrase in our little ninth grade group. I have no idea why now. I guess because we were ninth graders–and nerdy.

I do know that Romans, including Caesar, drank wine.

Caesar: Good friends, go in and taste some wine with me.

And we, like friends, will straightway go together.

Brutus: (aside) That every “like” is not the same, O Caesar,

The heart of Brutus earns to think upon.

—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2

And that they had feasts, during which they reclined. Maybe because they were drinking wine, too. That’s a joke. Perhaps.  (The men—I’m not sure about the women–participating in the feasts reclined. Their slaves did not, which is why we’re told, to recline on Passover, since we are free.) Ancient Roman food often consisted of simple fare, such as bread, salty cheese, and fruit. Porridge-like dishes were common. Banquets featured more elaborate preparations, and the households of the wealthy displayed their wealth through the use of exotic ingredients. Dishes were often boiled or fried in olive oil—and strongly flavored sauces were essential. Garum, a fermented fish sauce was very popular. They also liked sweets made with honey.

On Purim, you’re supposed to drink wine, eat sweets, and celebrate! Traditional Purim foods often focus on beans, seeds, nuts, and dairy, as Queen Esther, it is said, did not want to eat food that was not kosher.

So what to eat for an Ides of March/ Purim feast? I haven’t quite decided. I’m thinking perhaps homemade falafel, pita bread, along with some feta or goat cheese and olives. The Romans ate chickpeas, if not exactly falalfels, and goat cheese, and olives. Queen Esther may also have eaten those foods. You’re welcome to top your falafel with some garum, if you want and happen to have it handy, but I think I’ll pass. Of course, top off the feast with lots of wine and Hamantaschen!

This is also the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, when many cities in the US host special bar crawls, and revelers in green hats and clothing stumble through the streets. For some who partake, the crawl will no doubt be literal. Feel free to add green food coloring to your Hamantaschen if you feel the need to eat green food. I don’t.

Enjoy your food and drink this weekend, whatever your cultural background. You might even want to start off your gastronomic weekend with a pie for Pi Day today! But remember,  if a soothsayer tells you to avoid going somewhere tomorrow, you might want to heed his or her advice.

I wanted to try more recipes for Hammantaschen, but with looming deadlines and various projects, I didn’t get a chance this week. This is the recipe that I’ve used in the past, and which I prepared for a talk I gave this week. It uses oil instead of butter, but it has a great orange flavor. I made prune and apricot fillinggs. Just cook the fruit with some water, orange juice, lemon, and sugar until they’re soft and then mash them and chill. I also mixed some ground walnut and coconut into blueberry jam. Experiment with various jams and fruit fillings. YUM!

I used large eggs instead of extra large eggs, and it came out fine.


(This recipe was in The Philadelphia Inquirer several years ago, but I don’t know who created it.)

5 extra large eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup corn/vegetable oil

½ cup orange juice

Grated rind of 1 orange

Grated rind of 1 lemon

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. vanilla extract

6 ½ cups flour

1 ½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

Beat eggs until thick, but not foamy. Beat in sugar. Add oil, OJ, grated orange and lemon rinds, lemon juice, and vanilla. Mix at low speed. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt; slowly stir into egg mixture to moisten. Do not overbeat. Dough will be sticky. Spread dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet; cut into quarters and chill at least 3 hrs., up to 3 days. (Dough may be frozen. To use defrost overnight in refrigerator.)

When ready to proceed, work with one-quarter of dough at a time, leaving the rest refrigerated. Lightly dust a cutting board with flour. Gently knead the dough pliable. Roll to ¼-inch thickness. Cut into circles, fill, and shape into triangles.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 -25 minutes until golden. Makes about 60 cookies.