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

Crust:

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.

Filling:

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).

Love and Marriage: Ringing Out the Year with Love and Traditions

Tevye: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?”

Golde: “I don’t remember growing older. When did they?”

In August, my older daughter got married. It was a wonderful celebration of love and joy as family and friends enveloped the two glowing brides in a bubble of warm wishes, while sharks and other aquatic life looked on–since the ceremony and reception took place at an aquarium. In October, my sister and her long-time partner married. It was also a love-filled, joyous event. The brides barely managed to get through their vows without crying as family and friends encircled them on the ballroom floor. The reception included some wild and crazy dancing. Yes, some of it was mine.

A few years ago, I never would have thought my older daughter or my younger sister would be able to marry. That they can is wonderful, and yet, completely natural—because why shouldn’t they be able to legally marry the people they love?

Amidst the grays of December and the brightness of seasonal festivities, our family experienced another outpouring of love marked with tears, laughter, and a sparkling token of promise and affection.

On Christmas Eve, my younger daughter’s boyfriend proposed to her. She struggled to say “yes” through her tears of joy. As we later heard about and saw in a video, these two trained actors could barely form words. My husband and I and a few other family members knew the proposal was coming that day, but my daughter did not. After the proposal, which took place in a favorite restaurant, the happy couple returned to my niece’s house, where they had had brunch with our family earlier in the day. My daughter didn’t know all of us would still be there. (We watched Fiddler on the Roof, the obvious choice for a Christmas Eve movie, while we waited for them to return.) When she and her now fiancé walked in the door, we yelled “surprise,” –my mother still not realizing what had happened–and there were many tears of joy shed—followed by a smiles, laughter, and a toast to the newly engaged couple.

In the weeks leading up to the proposal, I had been referring to my niece, other daughter, her wife, and I as “the yentas,” as we struggled not to ask details or give advice to my daughter’s boyfriend. So, of course, I had to write a silly parody skit of Fiddler on the Roof as an engagement gift. It was titled, “A Kitten on the Roof.” (I mean, of course it was, what else would I call it?)

I won’t share it here, since it is filled with family jokes that would not make much sense to people outside of our family, but here is the beginning:

“A kitten on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But you might say that we’re all kittens on the roof, trying to keep our balance with a bit of hissing and clawing. Sometimes life is crazy weird, but at other times it’s all cuddles and purrs.”

My younger daughter and her fiancé were both theatre majors in college, and they performed in some plays together there. With their theatre backgrounds in mind, this is the coda to my silly skit:

This is the end of Part I. This play runs in many acts over many, many years. Be prepared. There will be laughter and tears. Props will appear and disappear. Settings and lighting will change. Cues will be missed. Actors will come and go, but the characters, Sheryl and Eric, remain constant—at least to each other.

So, as you can tell, my holiday season was wonderful! I am so happy for my daughter and her fiancé. I know 2014 was not a good year for many people. I have friends who have lost loved ones. I know horrible things have happened in the world. But for me, 2014 is the year of love and marriage. And there will be another wedding soon.

* * * * *

Wishing all of you a very happy new year filled with cuddles and purrs and very few occasions for hisses and claws. I wish you long life and happiness. I wish all of you the ability to take joy in old traditions and/or the ability to create new ones. I wish for you to receive at least one good surprise in 2015. I wish all of you the presence of people who love you. Wishing all good things for all of us in 2015!

To us and our good fortune

Be happy be healthy, long life!
And if our good fortune never comes

Here’s to whatever comes,
Drink l’chaim, to life!

–“To Life” From Fiddler on the Roof

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My husband and I at our older daughter’s wedding at Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ.