life's lemon(s) into peach pies
To uncover my family history, walk into my mother’s kitchen and pull open the drawer under her “baking center.” On the right side is pile of colorful recipes torn from Sunset and Bon Appetite magazines interspersed and awkwardly folded black and white recipes cut from The Seattle Times. Shift those aside and lift out my mother’s thick, red vinyl 3-ring recipe notebook – stuffed beyond closing with recipes.
The red vinyl cover has stiffened with age. With some care, open the notebook. In the back, piled against the back cover are more loose recipes. My mother pulls out her notebook and its loose recipes when she’s tired of “same ol’” and wants to try something new. The front section of the notebook is filed with plastic recipe pages, each with 2 card pouches displaying recipes. Each page is heavy (usually with recipes behind recipes) but as you flip through the vinyl notebook, you’ll find “Uncle Pat’s Bread,” an amazing large loaf where the bread mushrooms over the sides of the pot when baked. I don’t actually know who Uncle Pat was. Hmmm… anyway, the recipes in that book came from family friends I do know (of) such as Helen Jo’s father, Jeanie, and my father’s best friend’s mother, Florence – who gave us our ultimate favorite recipe, “Harvest Loaf.” Before computers, my mother hand wrote a fair number of her favorite recipes on cards and filed them in her book. Plus, over the year’s, my mother’s mother mailed all sorts of recipes such as pizza dough, her mother’s coconut cream pie, and my father’s favorite recipe of peanut butter cookies. All three of these women, my Great-Grandmother, my Grandma and my Mother are reputed as excellent cooks; the instructions on their recipes bear the type of precision that comes from experience in the kitchen.
When I flip through that book, I’m usually looking for my favorite recipe: my Grandmother’s “Pfeffernusse” cookies. On a utilitarian 3x5 white, softly lined notecard, my Grandmother’s writing differs from her usual spider-web-like cursive: her instructions are carefully printed in blue ink, later smudged by damp baker hands. (Oops!) When I was young, I baked Ginger Snaps and was disappointed the cookies weren’t as I remembered. The cookies I remembered included sweet and spicy powdered ginger and molasses somehow baked into little white, aged balls: Grandma baked pfeffernusse for Christmas in November, frosted them and placed them in re-usable cookie tins. She mailed them 3000 miles in a box with other wrapped gifts. From the box, I’d lift that tin, pull back its lid and hear my mother say, “One cookie each, girls!” At night, I’d sneak back into the kitchen, find that tin and eat another cookie. And, probably, another. I cannot promise I didn’t eat 3 or 4. They are very good. When I bake pfeffernusse the calendar reads December, I rarely have the patience for the cookies to age, and I miss my Grandmother.
About her collection my Mom says, “When I flip through those recipes, many of them, I’ll never make again. But they show how food has changed. Remember Great-Aunt Emma’s chicken sandwiches, crusted with potato chips?”
(I do. Yum!)
“I probably won’t make them any more. Chips are so unhealthy! But I do make your Grandmother’s pizza dough.”
Indeed, recipes have changed since my newly married mother began to fill her red notebook with recipes. Growing up, my mom cooked us chicken, rice and spinach casserole; now my mother is more likely to serve chicken salad. But when I open her notebook, I am less interested in the arc of food history and more interested in the men and women who came before and made us. They, their kitchens, their stories, are now gone. What is left? Their recipes.
A few weeks ago, my parents’ house suffered an electrical fire in the kitchen. 12 flashing fire trucks lined their street, lights flashing across my mother and father’s faces as they stood outside, wondering if their home would survive the night.
There was a lot of damage. But more from smoke than the fire. No one was hurt. The house will be repaired. In the meantime, a company was hired to remove my parent’s things from the home, clean them of smoke and water damage and store them until the house is restored.
“What about the recipes?” I asked during the company’s pre-project walk through.
“We’ll hand-wipe your recipes and run them through ozone to clean them,” said the company project manager.
“Fine,” we agreed. “But if they cannot be repaired, we want them back.”
Yesterday, while doing a related inventory of fire damage, my father and I discovered my mother’s recipes seem to have been thrown away. That treasured red notebook, with its the Pfeffernusse, Uncle Pat’s bread, Aunt Emma’s sandwich recipes?
I am very angry with that company. I am angry with myself: why didn’t I grab the recipes the day after the fire? Who cares if they smelled of smoke?
My mother, father and I are trying to tell ourselves, “Those recipes are just things. What matters is that no one got hurt.”
But to dismiss those recipes as “just things” isn’t working for me. Because those recipes aren’t things to me. They’re history. Irreplaceable history.
To be fair, we are not yet certain the recipes are gone. We’ve sent emails, made insistent phone calls and we wait for answers. Perhaps I’ll get to write a happy blog and share some of those recipes. (Please. Oh, please!). The house fire will become a story we tell.
Today, life gave out lemons. In retaliation? We bought a bbbiiiggg box of peaches. We’re going to squeeze those lemons into peach pies for the brave firefighters who saved my parents’ house. So my first recipe for this blog will be pie, I’ll print it for the new red notebook that we’ll buy for my mother to re-build our family's recipes.
* * *
- .5 cup of butter
- .5 cup of shortening
- 2.5 cups of flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- .5 teaspoon sugar
- .5 cup of ice water
- 4 cups sliced, peeled peaches
- .5 lemon’s worth of lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- .75 cups sugar
- .5 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- .25 teaspoons ground nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ~4 tablespoons milk
- ‘Fridge space
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring cups
- Food processor (optional)
- Plastic wrap
- Butter knife
- Peeler or knife
- Mixing bowl
- Nutmeg grinder (optional)
- Pie pan
- Rolling pin
- Pastry brush (optional)
- Cookie sheet (optional – for under pie pan and drippings!)
The key to pie is cold ingredients!
Measure the butter and shortening, place them in the ‘fridge for 30 minutes. Measure the flour, salt, sugar into a food processor. Pulse. Quickly cut up butter and shortening, pulse until pea-sized pieces. Add water spin until dough begins to come together. Dump the dough on a stretch of plastic wrap. Work the dough as little as possible – but pull it into a ball and wrap with plastic wrap. Place in ‘fridge while preparing the filling (recommended 30 minutes).
For the filling, peel peaches into a mixing bowl – leave a little bit of skin here and there for color. Zest the lemons and squeeze the lemons. Add sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, zest, lemon juice to bowl. Mix.
Divide pie dough in half. Place half back in ‘fridge. Roll out pie dough. Place into pie pan. Add filling. Roll out the second half of the dough. Cover pie, flute edges, and cut vents. Brush pie with milk for golden crust.
Bake on 425F for 30 – 40 minutes, until peaches are soft and the crust is golden.