There were things Mom made and things Dad made. Dinner most nights was Mom. For a time, every Tuesday was pesto night. It was the only way I would eat vegetables, whipped into a puree with pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan. Teddie’s apple cake, Maida Heater’s brownies, and an East 62nd Street lemon cake were Mom items. I learned the basics of baking with these recipes. The pages of the cookbooks are stained with drips of grease, flour caked into the centerfold. Each of them had also been amended to deepen flavor. Doubling the chocolate in a simple recipe for run of the mill brownies renders them hearty and indulgent. A slight half cup of whole wheat flour turns the apple cake nutty and savory.
Pies, tarts, eggs and the grill were Dad. The nights we ate omelets and crêpes he stood frying and flipping above a cast iron skillet. Come summer, he guards the grill with expertise and ease. The pies and tarts happened all year round on special occasions. He always made it in a food processor, the ice cold butter sounding off against its plastic walls. I burned my tongue and fingertips too many times eating them the scraps of crust right out of the oven. The butter crust was a balancing act of fat, starch and water.
My first semester of college there was a pie baking contest sometime around Thanksgiving. I felt I had to enter. That crust. I dialed home, asking if I could do it without the food processor. There was a moment of silence, then the one liner I’ll never forget “How do you think the pilgrims did it?” Right. I nodded and wrote down his proportions. This recipe works for pies, tarts, galettes, quiche (if you omit the sugar).
10 2/3 tbsp butter
2 cups flour
2 tbsp sugar
scant 1/4 cup ice cold water
dash of rum
Mix flour and sugar. Cut the butter into the mixture. Work it by rubbing between your fingers until you get pea-sized pieces. Add liquor if using, then a tablespoon or so of cold water. Mix it, add more water. Resist the urge to add more than ¼ cup of water. Once the dough starts to come together a bit, turn it out onto the counter. It will not be a cohesive mass, it should still be crumbly. The next step is called frissage and builds the texture of the dough, holding it together while making it flaky. Collect the dough into a disc about the diameter of CD and 2 inches tall. Roll it out on wax paper or parchment and flip into tart shell/pie pan/cookie sheet (for a galette).