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Five stages of pie

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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In On Death and Dying, her 1969 pop-psychology bestseller, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined what later became known as the Five Stages of Grief. (They are not, so far as anyone has been able to determine, related to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)

Everybody, Kübler-Ross theorized, goes through at least two of the five stages when dealing with a major life trauma, such as a divorce or serious illness. If you've just been given a terminal diagnosis, so the thinking goes, you will at some point experience the emotions associated with the stages. 

Kübler-Ross did not, to my knowledge, outline which stages you are likely to go through when you have a serious kitchen trauma. No, no, not severed fingertips or oil fires. Just cooking, which, as most of us can attest, can sometimes feel like the Five Stages of Grief.

[%image promo-image float=right width=400 caption="Making a pie can be murder." credit="Photo © Culinate"]

Let's give it a whirl, shall we? 

Scene: A warm May Sunday here in Portland. The setting: My kitchen. The cast: One 12-ounce can of evaporated milk (why did I buy this, anyway?), several wilting sprigs of fresh mint, and a bag of lemons. The drama: What to cook?

Well, icebox pie, that rich and cool Southern staple, usually calls for condensed milk. OK, flip open On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee's handy culinary encyclopedia. Page 24: "Condensed or evaporated milk is made by heating raw milk under reduced pressure . . . For sweetened condensed milk, the milk is first concentrated by evaporation, and then table sugar is added to give a total sugar concentration of about 55%." 

h4. Stage One: Denial 

OK then, I can use evaporated milk in place of sweetened condensed milk, so long as I add some sugar to taste. Right? As Kübler-Ross' fans might say, "Groovy." And the mint? Into the evaporated milk it goes, to soak and flavor the milk.

I open my copy of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition) and find a recipe for Key Lime Pie. Limes, schlimes. Lemons will do just as well. Oh, wait — Marky Mark calls for a 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk, which leaves me two ounces short. Whatev, I'll just make up the difference with some extra lemon juice. I've got an entire bag of lemons, remember?

I make Bittman's Flaky Pie Crust, a recipe I find totally foolproof so long as you ignore the scanty water measurements and add about a gallon of icy liquid. I chill. I bake. I chill. I crack eggs and whip (I am momentarily astonished when, as the recipe instructs, "the mixture will thicken," and heck if it doesn't thicken right on cue) and I get ready to pour.

As I lift the bowl to pour the uncooked custard into the prebaked pie shell, I think briefly, "Hey, don't you always have too much batter for the size of your pie dish?"  

h4. Stage Two: Anger

So now there is much eggy custard on the stovetop and running down the sides of the pie plate. I curse a bit and sling the pie into the oven anyway. I set my timer and wait.

At 15 minutes, the custard has not set. At 25 minutes, the custard still has not set. It is about as wet as a really sloppy martini. I am angry. I am so angry that my husband, outside in the yard, fears for my life and comes running inside to save me. From myself, I guess.

h4. Stage Four: Depression

OK, so I'm skipping Stage Three (don't worry, I'll get back to it, and besides, Kübler-Ross says the order doesn't matter) and going straight to the doldrums. I consider tossing the pie in the trash, plate and all, but recollect that throwing hot liquid around will make an even bigger mess than the cold sloshing Pollock painting I created earlier, so I restrain myself. Barely. 

I don't have the heart to throw away the leftover egg whites I had saved for the meringue topping, so I get out the beater and rumble it around the metal bowl sadly, foaming the whites into a mournful sea. I will bake the whites, at any rate, and eat meringues all by themselves.

h4. Stage Three: Bargaining

The meringue bakes up so prettily, in little dollops with swirly brown edges and all, that I decide to give the pie a second chance. I shove it back into the oven and give it another 25 minutes, at which point it looks about half-set. Into the fridge it goes, to see what the chill factor will do for it.

h4. Stage Five: Acceptance

Ah, I love my fridge. I love the way the pie custard barely moves when I jiggle it. I love the look of my meringue, glopped inelegantly atop the pie. I take a bite. The meringue is cloudlike, the crust moist and flaky, and the custard tangy and not too sweet and ever-so-slightly minty.

Life is not a box of chocolates. Life is a lemon icebox pie.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

*Also on Culinate: Tips for making pie dough.

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