Monthly Archives: March 2016

Let there be pie

It’s 10:45 pm, Monday night. Monday 03-14, Pi(e) day. I breeze into my kitchen after a long day of work and couldn’t NOT make pie on Pi(e) day. I’d been going back and forth on whether to go to the hassle most of the afternoon and evening. When I was still at work at 8:00 pm, I almost convinced myself that I didn’t really need to do it. After all, I have two manuscripts to finish editing, graduate student qualifying exams to review, undergraduate letters of recommendation to write and who knows what else. Pie could wait until another time.

But a thought struck my mind.

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It’s the start of spring – I might actually be able to grab some rhubarb from the store and wouldn’t that pair wonderfully with the ginger ice cream I had made a few day ago? Ahhh, the allure of rhubarb is simply too tempting for me to ignore. Store number one – out of luck, I live in Georgia now and wasn’t entirely sure that I would spot it at all. However, store number two (I love residing within walking distance to not one, or two but three grocery stores!) revealed a few vibrant pink stalks. I quickly grabbed the few remaining pieces and silently cursed (or not-so-silently, but hey, I was at the Murder Kroger). Not nearly enough for a full pie. Now what? Another stroll through the produce section had me stopping at the peaches. And the third pass through at the blackberries. Alright, I may be a little off script, but I think, just maybe, not only will it not be a complete disaster, but it may actually be quite good.

I’m quickly and assuredly making decisions as my pie idea forms in my mind – it borderlines on manic. I choose a buttermilk crust since I have some leftover buttermilk from a batch of biscuits I made over the weekend. Yes, I think that should do the trick. Given extra wet nature of the rhubarb, peaches and berries – I think I’ll not only par-bake the bottom crust, but seal it with an egg wash as well. Because the difference between an okay pie and a transformative one is often in the details of the crust. Oh! I’ll do a lattice top – won’t that be pretty! So, perhaps I’ll do 1.5x the recipe for the crust. No big deal.

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I toss together my coveted rhubarb, a few bordering on underripe peaches and the handful of blackberries along with some sugar, flour, a dash of cinnamon and a couple of teaspoons of grated ginger and give it all a good toss and let it meld while the pie dough chills. A couple of cocktails, a load of dishes and the beginnings of a long and rambling blog post happen.

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Pie, no matter how well done, is impressive and needs to be shared, if only to glory in the accolades it will undoubtedly receive. Perhaps because of the underlying assumption that it is a brave soul who attempts to put together such a concoction of pastry and fruit. The dough could be too tough or crack when rolled, the fruit too watery or worse, sickly sweet from adding too much sugar, the ratios of the two could be completely unbalanced. The sheer thought of baking a pie is overwhelming enough to scare people away. Consequently, offering pie alà mode the day after Pi(e) Day was met with an absurdly high level of enthusiasm from members and friends of my lab.

For the inexperienced, pie seems impossible – and rhubarb-peach-blackberry pie made up on the fly, particularly when paired with homemade fresh ginger ice cream (a stroke of genius) even more so. A number of students expressed awe and wonderment at the ability to tackle such a task, followed by a sad statement regarding their lack of confidence in this arena.

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My actions Monday night are reminiscent of the recent days that I’ve spent in my lab. We finally arrived at spring break during my first semester of teaching undergraduates (the semester prior was dedicated to graduate teaching) and it was a busy, and sometimes impossible to maintain semester. I desperately craved a break and contemplated renting a cabin in the north Georgia mountains to escape from it all. Yet, in the end, I spent most of that time in the lab after a seemingly endless hiatus. Regardless of the time spent away, I storm into the lab and begin tying up a number of experimental loose ends.

I’d forgotten how much at home I feel in the lab. I certainly had forgotten the sense of accomplishment one has at the end of the day spent on your feet, running around from the warm room (our yeast like to grow at 30º C) to the bench, to the autoclave, to the glassware cabinet, to the PCR machine, to the centrifuge, to the gel electrophoresis rig, etc. There is an underlying ease and confidence to my actions. It feels good. And if the gel of my PCR is any indication, I haven’t lost my lab hands. Not only is it comforting to spend time back in the lab – it’s genuinely fun.

It’s difficult, after nearly a decade of time spent in the lab, to remember that it wasn’t always second nature. That the very reason that I can waltz into the lab after six months away and nearly immediately encounter experimental success is precisely because I’ve had a decade to slowly, but surely, hone my skills, encountering a turning point that remains imperceivable to me as to when exactly it occurred. One of the more challenging aspects of my job is to to teach people how to think scientifically and importantly, to not judge too quickly when they are not immediately successful. Or to judge too harshly when a young scientist can’t immediately pick up on the nuances of an experiment or how to optimize a protocol or manage their time.

{Note: there are MANY new aspects of my position that I attempt with complete uncertainty – and am learning to forgive myself for not knowing how to do all of them with expertise. But life in the lab? That I know something about.}

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What’s it like to be unsure? To not know, or to carry the confidence that what you’ll do will end well? Intellectually, I know I that I did not arrive in the lab (or the kitchen for that matter) fully formed. But now it seems foreign to me, the notion that I didn’t always have such a deep intimacy of my study subject or, when in the kitchen, flavor profiles and techniques or to have a repertoire of resources and accumulated knowledge to draw upon. In hindsight, there are a few things that must have contributed to my development. 1) The sheer repetition of action and consistency in results contributed significantly to my confidence. 2) Learning who to trust with protocols/recipes – just because something is available online does not it will yield reliable outcomes Who are the scientists/chefs that I respect and want to build my own work off of? 3) Appropriately testing a technique and establishing a baseline before making educated modifications – but not to be afraid to try something a little different and outside of my comfort zone. 4) And finally, embracing the notion that sometimes I will fail. And possibly fail spectacularly, knowing that the failure is worthwhile because I will have learned something critical.

I struggle to find ways to extend my patience with naïve scientists, to remember to acknowledge the small victories and to cultivate an environment in which failing is a beautiful learning opportunity. To be able to remind them that the very process of doing something is as important as the result. That we may not know the outcome as we embark on a new project, but, that we can hopefully navigate logically and with our collective knowledge through the murkiness to a breathtaking destination.

And when that fails, sweeten them up with pie.

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Rhubarb-Peach-Blackberry Pie with Buttermilk Crust

Buttermilk Crust:

  • 1 7/8 (aka 2 cups – 1 T) cups all purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 12 tablespoons butter, cubed
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little water for egg wash

Filling:

  • 2 ½ cups rhubarb, chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 3 peaches, peeled and chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 2 cups blackberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot starch
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a food processor, pulse the flour with the sugar and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-size pieces remaining. Drizzle the buttermilk on top and pulse until the dough just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather up any crumbs and divide into two disks – one a little larger than the other. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger disk of dough to a 12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Ease the dough into a 9-inch glass pie plate. Trim the overhanging dough to 1 inch, fold it under itself and crimp the dough decoratively. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the crust in the lower third of the oven for about 20 minutes, until barely set. Remove the parchment paper and pie weights. Brush with egg wash, reserving remaining wash. Bake for 15  minutes longer, until the crust is lightly browned. Let cool on a rack. Leave the foil strips on the crust rim. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.

Toss together all ingredients for the filling. Pour filling into par-baked crust. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the smaller disk of dough to a ~12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut into ten, 1-inch strips. Place strips in a lattice pattern (5 in one direction and 5 perpendicular). Brush with remaining egg wash. Cover the edge of the crust with strips of foil and bake for 45-60 minutes until top lattice is browned and filling is bubbling. Let cool.

Serve with homemade fresh ginger ice cream spiked with some Au Thym Sauvage from Farigoule de Haute Provence (and why it has a place in my liquor cabinet is a story for another time). Although, to be fair, most any type of ice cream will suffice.

 

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