Thursday, January 28, 2016

Don't Go Breaking My Heart - Mrs. Bird's Apple Pie

I have always liked Elton John, and I have always liked the song that inspired this earworm. Anytime I hear it, I am transported back to happy memories of a trip I took to California in the summer of 1975. I was traveling with my friend and former college roommate Mary Kane, and the trip was such a success, we headed out to Hawaii the following year.

(Okay, let's stop right here, because I know what you're thinking - I seemed to have had an awful lot of roommates while I was in college, and those are just counting the ones I still talk to. Stipulated. There's a lot of drama in college relations, some of which I brought on myself when I stepped outside the safe circle of friends from my freshman year to try living in a suite with someone I mistakenly thought was good roommate material. Never mind the details; after all these years I still get aggravated.)

Anyway, it's not anyone from my college days who is breaking my heart ... nope, it's my Magic. Now I'm sure there are a whole lot of New England Patriot fans whose hearts really were broken this past week, but let them get their own earworms. Football is a highly-overrated sport. Basketball, on the other hand, is the best. Better than baseball, even.

The heartbreak is coming from the fact that this young, practically brand-new team, with a new, good coach, himself a former Magic player, was doing really well (a welcome change after the Dwightmare, the banishment of Stan Van Gundy, the crazy trades of Otis Smith, and the coaching debacle of Jacque Vaughn) and then suddenly, they are not. My boys are on a losing streak, they've fallen back below .500, and my dreams of them making the playoffs, which seemed all so possible a month ago, has evaporated. Other than an awesome advantage in the draft picks, there is nothing fun about having having the worst record in the NBA. So sing it, Elton.

PSA - On a completely unrelated matter, in what has to be the ultimate non sequitur, I want to talk to you about cardamom, the Queen of Spices. You may recall that a few months ago I was railing unmercifully about the price of cardamom; even Walmart was letting me down in the reasonable price department. I am now able to advise you that reasonably-priced ground cardamom can be purchased from your local Fresh Market. Thank you.

I woke up this morning to a raging heart palpitation and the news headline that today was the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. As dicky as my memory has become, I remember so very clearly where I was and how I found out about Challenger. I can also tell you how I would not watch subsequent shuttle launches for years, despite having them sonic boom my first house in Orlando upon their safe returns to Kennedy Space Center, until the day I made myself stand in the parking lot of the HRS office in Cocoa, and watch a takeoff so close I could reach up and touch it. Even a non believer - which I am not - could not have missed the powerful feeling of praying for the shuttle - it would have been Columbia or Discovery - and its crew, looking skyward while the shuttle headed into the heavens (you know, where God lives.)

We were still a great country then, still highly respected worldwide. Ronald Reagan was the President, and his post-Challenger speech was so poignant, and so perfect it still makes me cry. Reagan borrowed in small part from a poem written by aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr., just months before his own death during flight.

High Flight
 "Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."
The thing about anniversaries like this is those of a certain generation inevitably ask the question (of themselves or others) "where were you when you heard about (insert name of tragedy)? That I can still remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot (seated in the 6th grade classroom of Mr. Angelo Antonio Angona, facing the clock and public announcement system box at Number 6 School in Woodmere), when the shootings occurred at Kent State (hanging out in Mr. Friedman's classroom during lunch break at Lawrence High School), when Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency (sitting on my bed in my parent's home in Howard Beach, addressing wedding invitations), when Carter was declared the winner of the Presidency (Walter Cronkite broke in on my sleep after I'd passed out on my bed in my Howard Beach apartment), when Elvis died (standing on the sidewalk in front of Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn), when Bill Clinton announced that he'd really had sex with that woman (in my family room in our first Hunter's Creek house), when Challenger exploded (at my desk at All-American Marine Slip on Maiden Lane in NYC; one of the underwriters came over to tell us that the shuttle had blown up, to which I responded "that's not funny, Phil") when the events of September 11th took place (in my law office on North Central Avenue; my paralegal started screaming), when Columbia exploded on reentry (getting a pedicure at Beauti-Works in Hunter's Creek), is both a sadness and a relief for me.

In honor of the American heroes on board the Shuttle Challenger on this day 30 years ago, I am going to bake an apple pie. Not just any apple pie, but Mrs. Bird's apple pie.

The Next-to-Last Centurion, he specializes in guarding hot food from the oven

So whaaat? Beeg deal ... (if you've never watched Buckaroo Banzai, this would be a really good time to do so. Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin and a whole bunch of Lectroids. No matter where you go, there you are.)

For one thing, I have no idea who Mrs. Bird is, although I've been baking her apple pie for over 30 years. I do remember finding the recipe in the newspaper - probably Newsday - where it was called "The Mom's Apple Pie To End All Mom's Apple Pies." It must of sounded positively apple-apocalyptic to me, because somewhere in the intervening years I changed the name to Mrs. Bird's (her first name was Alice) Apple Pie. What grabbed me about this recipe (back in the days when I could still physically read an actual newspaper - I developed a sensitivity to newsprint, I waited until the internet was invented and now I read it every day) was the crumb topping. (Incidentally, I just realized I cut the recipe out of a long-gone issue of Bon Appetit magazine, for which I had a 40 year subscription. I finally ended it when the internet was invented and yada yada yada.)

Okay, the crumb topping ... first of all, I love crumb topping - who doesn't? I could happily buy an Entenmann's Deluxe Crumb Cake, discard the cake (it's too dry) and just eat the crumb topping. Or I could bake up my recipe for Aunt Ceil's Apple Cake with Cinnamon Crumb Topping. I would never discard the cake, though; my Aunt Ceil, may she rest in peace, was a wonderful baker.  Make this cake, have your crumb topping and eat the whole thing. You will swoon from sheer joy.

You get the point. The second thing is that I really don't care for pies that sport a top crust. Too redundant. Too boring. Too much wasted space. Why have two crusts when you could have the obligatory bottom crust and something wonderful on top, like spicy, buttery crumbs? Or nothing - what about a topless fruit pie, eager for direct contact with real whipped cream or a shiny coat of melted apple jelly? Shiny!

And that's why I've been making Mrs. Bird's Apple Pie for all these years. You can see the original recipe in the photo, but I'm going to give you the Inspiration-Nation-I-have-extra-time-on-my-hands-because-I-am-officially-retired-so-I-tampered-with-the-old-lady's-recipe (geez, that was mean) version. I spiralized the apples, but you can use any method that will give you very thin half-slices. Knife, mandolin, whatever.

I got a letter today from the State of Florida advising that "your name has been added to the retired payroll under the service retirement provisions of the Florida Retirement System." Besides the odd phraseology (and as a lawyer I know quite a bit about odd phraseology) the letter said not a damn thing about when I should expect to receive my first month's benefit, how they were going to deal with a rather substantial back payment, and even what the precise biweekly amount was going to be. Show me the money, Florida!

Okay, finally the recipe:

1 - 9 inch deep dish frozen pie shell
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup turbinado sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Cindy's Sweet Spice Mix*
3 Granny Smith and 2 large Gala apples, peeled and spiralized on "A" blade (the blade without a noodler) or sliced very thin with a knife or mandolin
2 tablespoons butter (keep cold until ready to use)

Crumb topping:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup turbinado sugar
1 teaspoon Cindy's Sweet Spice Mix*
1/2 stick butter (keep cold until ready to use)

*Apparently I don't have a recipe for my sweet spice mix, which I keep in a little container next to the stove. I can't remember when I mixed it, nor which recipe in which I used it. Knowing me, it would have started with 1 or 2 tablespoons cinnamon, a teaspoon each of nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and dried orange peel, and maybe 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves. That is a rough approximation - I might have used more ginger and less cloves. If you don't want to take a chance on mixing your own, you can probably use commercial pumpkin or apple pie spice blends.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine the white sugar, turbinado sugar, flour, and spices. Add to the sliced apples and toss well to mix. Set aside while you mix the crumb topping. Take the pie shell out of the freezer, place it on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment, and set aside to defrost while you finish the topping.

For the crumb topping, in a medium bowl, combine the flour, turbinado sugar, and spices. Grate the cold butter into the bowl and mix with a fork and/or your fingers until the mixture is crumbly. Set aside.

Now, the final act: place the sliced apples into the pie shell. Grate the 2 tablespoons of cold butter over the top of the apples. Carefully scatter the crumb topping over the apple filling.

Bake for 40-45 minutes until the crust and topping are nicely browned.  Cool the pie completely before cutting and serving (I put it into the refrigerator to chill out). Haul out the Haagen Daz, sink and relax.

Oy, I hope I saved enough spoons for tonight's tai chi class ...

Why yes, that is a 1970's era Tupperware pie taker ...

Where else would you store your apple pie?

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