Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tinker, Tailor, Baker, Pie

My father's brother married a woman who could do practically anything. Her skills in the kitchen were equally matched by her green thumb. Her garden boasted more than a hundred rose bushes which produced some of the most exquisite blossoms I have ever seen. Louise could sew - but more than that, she was a tailor who designed and made dresses and suits that rivaled that of the "28 Shop" at Marshall Field's. She could hang wallpaper, fix plumbing, install windows, upholster furniture and once, when I spent the weekend with my aunt and uncle, I observed her changing the oil and replacing the spark plugs in their car. She accomplished all of these things while maintaining a full time job. To say that Uncle Roy was living large is an understatement. Louise was everybody's favorite relative. She was so popular, that one of my nieces is named for her. If there is one thing for which Aunt Louise is remembered, however, it is her Apple Pie. She's been gone for 35 years but at family gatherings, the subject of the pie still surfaces.

The fact of those 10-inch mile-high beauties was not lost on my mother, who never ever baked an Apple Pie. Frankly, she couldn't stand the competition. In terms of the sheer number of baked goods, my mother had Louise beat by a mile. My mother was an extraordinary baker - the stuff of legends - and she baked scores of fabulous pies. During the summer months we ate Blueberry Pie until our collective teeth were stained. In the spring, we ate Rhubarb Pie and lofty meringued Lemon Pie so tart it would make your eyes water, because that's the way the family liked it. Come Thanksgiving, there would be Mincemeat Pies with Brandied Hard Sauce and Pumpkin Chiffon Pies adorned with Orange Glaze. There was a Sour Cream Raisin too, that probably contributed to my father's demise. But Apple? No, that wasn't going to happen.

When we visited Aunt Louise and Uncle Roy's, Louise always made an Apple Pie for my father. It was accompanied by a generous slice of extra-sharp Cheddar Cheese from someplace in Vermont. It was so sharp that it made the roof of your mouth sting with delight. Louise served it to my father with a cup of coffee - percolated coffee - for which Louise would grind the beans herself. Hoo-boy! Now the entertainment would start - this was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. My mother made coffee the "Swedish way", in an enamel pot on the back of the stove - a gas stove. My mom prepared coffee that way until the day she died, eschewing percolators, drip machines, French press, or any other method of brewing. Dad would eat the Apple Pie with gusto and when asked if he would like another slice ( and a refill of the coffee), he would saddle up to Louise and say, "Oh yes 'Weezie' that would be wonderful" - and my mother would be quietly seething in the corner: "I don't know how Louise does it in that electric oven. You just can't control those electric ranges! Everything comes out dry! Any cook who has any sense uses gas, for God's sake! Percolators ruin coffee! All that bubbling over and over just kills the flavor!" (My father was as kind a person as could be found, but somehow he seemed to be enjoying the scenery). Then there was the matter of the dishwashing liquid. My aunt used a different brand than my mother, who claimed that "dishpan hands" would eventually claim Louise and render her forever useless.

Louise made a three-layer German Chocolate Cake, too and it was to die for - suffice to say that there were no such cakes to be had at home. My favorite "Aunt Louise dessert" was an Angel Food Cake baked in an extra-long loaf pan. She split it horizontally, filled it with vanilla pastry cream, and iced it with billows of light caramel frosting. I'm happy to say that is one cake I have since mastered.

My mom baked hundreds of fantastic cookies at Christmastime (all packed up in Marshall Field's boxes which she saved throughout the year), regularly crafted homemade bread, and in her lifetime produced probably a thousand Lady Baltimore cakes, three-layer Chocolate Cakes with Apricot Filling, and Coconut Cakes filled with lemon curd. There were Profiteroles, Eclairs filled with Coffee Cream, Napoleans, Palmiers, Tortes, giant Cinnamon Rolls, Coffeecakes, and Jelly Rolls, but no Apple Pies. My mother was relegated to cooking with an electric range the last 25 years of her life because that was the hook-up in her condo. She complained about it but everthing that came out her kitchen was sublime.

In 1972, when my uncle was dying of cancer, we went to see him at home. Louise served slices of Apple Pie. Sadly, it was a frozen pie. Uncle Roy's illness had eclipsed the crafting of homemade desserts. There was very little time for such things and not much inclination. Louise succumbed to cancer eleven months after her husband and that, I'm afraid was the end of the Apple Pies. My mother lived another 20 years and although the pie making continued, there was no mention of Apple Pie. Some things are sacred.