Top | Kitchen Limbo

The tao of dough

(article, Carrie Floyd)

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My mom was neither fancy nor fussy in the kitchen. She was a good cook and, like many people, particularly adept at cooking foods she liked to eat. Take pie, for example: coconut-custard, apricot, pumpkin. Mom did not make pie dough from scratch; instead, she liked a just-add-water brand. I used to tease her, telling her that making dough was the easy part, lamenting that the rolling out and crimping presented the most challenge. She disagreed. She didn’t want to make dough; she liked her crust just fine, and it was always good. Besides, when it came to rolling out the dough, she possessed a certain grace.

In my family-at-large, I am known as the cook. I like to cook — a lot. And there are many dishes that I am quite skilled at making. But my dirty little secret is that I am not always very patient. The dishes I excel at have huge margins for error and spontaneity: soups, stews, salad. For years I was a terrible baker, because I refused to follow any recipe I deemed fastidious. 

[%image piecrust width=450 float=left caption="Pie crust ready to fill and bake."] 

“Fat chance,” I’d mutter if I saw a recipe that stipulated separating the eggs, beating the yolks, and whipping the whites. My efforts at sponge cake yielded rubbery, sweet omelets. When I made Seven-Minute Frosting (because I had seven minutes before the guests arrived for the party), what I ended up with was a gooey, runny white mess that looked more like glue than icing, perfect for adhering two jars of jimmies to the cake. (Blessed are the three-year-olds, who couldn’t give a rip about “soft peaks” but love sprinkles.) Over time, I turned my attention to those baked goods that combine the least amount of effort with the largest payoff: jammers, scones, cookies, free-form tarts, crisps, and cobblers. 

Pie was something Mom made, not I.

In the years preceding her death from cancer, I started paying attention to how she made pie. Knowing that she was going to die made me keenly aware of all the things I would miss when she was gone. Also, I liked to cook for her, and as her health (and appetite) declined, I made her favorite foods in the hope that she would eat them. Custard pie was a sure winner. 

The more I made pie, the more comfortable I became with both making and handling the dough. But crimping the crust eluded me. How is it that the so-called artistic one in the family could be such a klutz when it came to making pie? Sure, the pies tasted good, but the crust around the rim looked like I had used my toes to shape it.
The first Thanksgiving after my mom died, I spent a frustrated morning making pumpkin pie. I kept trying to remember how she would use her knuckle to crimp the dough around the edge of the pie plate. Why, if I was doing it in the way she taught me, didn’t it look like hers? I tried to imagine the last time she showed me how to do it, to hear her soothing voice, as the tears streamed down my cheeks. 

[%image pieclass width=400 float=right caption="Pie school."] 

And then I did one of those things that people do when their hearts are broken: To hell with pie! Who needs pie? I turned away from pie. (As if pie were the problem.) Tarts — especially galettes, which I could shape however I wanted — were the pastry for me.

Since my mom has been gone, I’ve had a lot of time to think about her in ways that I never did when she was alive. When she was alive, I could just be with her. The bitter pill is that now I don’t get to share with her my revelations. Instead I roll them around in my brain, wondering if they are true or not.

One of the things I’ve realized is that, at heart, my mom was a Buddhist. She would laugh if she read that, and correct me: “No, Carrie, I’m an atheist.” 

When I say “Buddhist,” I’m referring to the emphasis on everyday life, living in the present. Though my mom liked to remember the past, she lived in the moment. With the exception of cancer, she liked her life and had few, if any, regrets. When she was reading, she was immersed in her book. When she was with one of us, you could feel the pleasure in her beautiful smile. When she made pie, she was just making pie. 


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This all came to me recently when I attended a pie-making class. When it was time to crimp the dough, the instructor — who had, up to this point, been very particular — said, “Find your own way.”  

For a moment, I suffered a bit of shock; this, after all, was the part I’d most struggled with. I wanted instruction. I tried to get her attention, but she was helping another student. I took a deep breath and told myself to be in the moment. No, Mom was not coaching me like Obi-Wan Kenobi. It was just me, the rolled-out dough, and the pie plate.

And I crimped the dough beautifully, if I do say so myself. It was the only thing I was thinking about; it was the only thing I was trying to do at the moment. 

When you put your mind to one task, and one task only, the results are amazing. Though multitasking is entirely in vogue these days, I have to say I’m a bit sick of it. I might unload the dishwasher or fold laundry while talking on the phone, but more and more, I find that I’d rather not do two things at once. Many things benefit from having your undivided attention. Being with your mom. Making pie. 

p(bio). Carrie Floyd is Culinate's food editor.

Elsewhere on Culinate: The challenges of the perfect icebox pie.

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