Take flour, water, oil ... and then add practice

As I look down at the dry contents of the pie pan, I think of saltine crackers. Once, when I was out of crackers and wanted something to put peanut butter on, I wondered how they were made. And now I've done it without meaning to. I was aiming for pie crust, but I think I used too little oil.

Since the main ingredients of this pie crust are flour, oil, water, and a pinch of salt, it doesn't cost much to keep trying, and my second attempt is better. The dough rolls out so well that I suspect I've used too much oil this time.

I'm ready to bake the crust. But what to fill it with? "Aha, quiche," I think. I've never made a quiche, but I find a recipe and I have all the ingredients in the fridge: eggs, milk, a couple of slices of bacon, a bit of onion, and parsley. Even some cheese to layer on the bottom. I pour the mixture into the unbaked crust over the cheese.

Forty minutes later, I have a reputable quiche. The crust, however, is still a problem - hard around the edges (yes, definitely too much oil) and soft on the bottom because of the cheese.

A year and a half ago, my roommate, Pam, had been online, ordering textbooks for the final semester of her master's program. Having become adept at used-book searches, she was now bereft - just sitting there, with no more books to find.

And there I was with virtually no books, after a decade of travel, writing - and eating microwave dinners. When Pam asked me what book I most regretted parting with, I replied instantly: "The Joy of Cooking, 1953." She gladly began the search.

The 1953 "Joy" was the current edition when a friend gave it to me in the 1960s as a wedding present. With all its butter-based sauces and cream-drenched desserts, it was a reminder of a postwar period when the nation could once again eat well.

My husband and I, however, had started our marriage with a new business to support. So I made elegant but cheap fare, putting just about everything except lettuce between flaky and flavorful pie crusts, thanks to an easy no-fail recipe in "Joy."

When the book finally fell apart in the mid-'70s, I replaced it with the current edition. By then I hadn't baked for years, but I tried the no-fail pie crust recipe again for nostalgia's sake. Like many of the other recipes, it had been altered, and it failed. Over the years, I had tried in vain to recapture my '53 "Joy."

Pam located a copy online and ordered it at the lowest price from a bookseller at an undisclosed locale. Ten days later I received the book I'd longed for. Inside was a postcard with a vintage photo of the bookshop next to an orange grove, superimposed on a drawing of California's Orange County freeway system. I e-mailed the bookseller that I had both grown up and received my first copy of "Joy" just a few miles down that freeway. He e-mailed back, informing me that the orange grove was gone.

It was midsummer when Pam and I retrieved "Joy" - and hardly the time for baking pies. Now Pam has moved on, and it's two winters later. The urge to bake a pie has finally arrived. I'm renting a colleague's pied-à-terre with a kitchen mostly equipped for microwaving. I attribute my two recent pie crust failures to a lack of proper utensils.

The next day, I bundle up and head for the nearby hardware store to invest in a flour sifter and measuring cup. I'm a little surprised when the college-age clerk comments, "Yeah, you've got to sift the right amount of air into the flour, or you get a tough crust. I know - my aunt makes great pies." And she adds that a bottle of frozen water makes a good rolling pin. "It keeps the shortening from getting too warm."

I'm warmed by the unexpected human touch at the sales counter, and I feel that the experiment is becoming worthwhile. At the corner convenience store I buy a package of pudding mix - and as I reach for a pint of whipping cream, I remember that the kitchen has no electric beater. Not wanting to walk back through snow and slush to buy one, I grab a can of shake-and-squirt whipped cream instead.

This time I sift ample air into the flour, and the measuring cup provides the right proportions. The baked crust looks right, although it's ragged around the edges. I fill it with the chocolate pudding, put it to cool in the fridge, and invite a friend over for dessert. Then I adorn the edges with a wreath of artistically heaped whipped cream and beam at the result. But - ere I lift the pie cutter - the cream collapses into rivulets over the still-warm chocolate filling.

So much for elegance. At least I got the flaky crust I've been aiming for.

Through a haze of nostalgia, I now realize that while the "ease" of my "easy, no-fail" favorite pie crust recipe lay in simply pouring salad oil and very cold water into a cup of twice-sifted flour with salt and stirring quickly, the "no fail" part obviously came from practice.

And while I remember only the successful pies, reason suggests there must have been some useful failures, too.

QR Code to Take flour, water, oil ... and then add practice
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today