Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Color Me Happy

I wanted to dress up for Easter dinner at the home of my dearest Baltimore friends, Jan and Robert, but most of my dressy clothes are black, and black seemed more appropriate for a time of mourning than for a day set aside to rejoice in the resurrection of a beloved prophet. I’d spent the previous weekend dyeing eggs in colorful tints of yellow, orange, blue and purple. Surely there was something in my closet that would fit the celebratory mood of the day. Maybe even a vintage something.

My culinary assignment for the festive family meal was to make a couple of appetizers and a dessert. The previous day I had formed two disks of homemade dough, my first-ever attempt at baking a pie from scratch. It had not gone well, given that a potato masher was the closest thing I had to the traditional tool used for cutting chilled butter into moistened flour. An article I had seen in the newspaper the previous day had warned me of the perils of making homemade pie – with the author admitting he’d made a pie every weekend for three months before his technique approached an acceptable level. I shuddered and soldiered on. I didn’t have three months. My odd-looking dough went into the fridge to chill overnight. 

Before going into the oven, my apple
pie was brushed with an egg-wash and
the edges crimped with... a pair of pliers!

I rose early on Sunday to peel, core and slice three pounds of Mutsu and Granny Smith apples, tossing them with brandy and then with cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, clove and the zest of fresh oranges. Now I dusted my cutting board with flour and rolled the stiff disks with my grandmother’s antique wooden rolling pin, doubtful they would ever resemble pie crust.

Slightly over-done around the edges,
I slipped my pie into an antique
wicker "pie-safe" for transport to
Easter dinner

Amazingly, the orbs rolled out nicely, and I felt no small amount of pride as I gently pressed the dough into a deep dish pie plate I had borrowed the day before from my neighbors across the street. I nestled the spiced apples into the baking dish and carefully settled the other flattened disk over top, folding the upper crust over the lower one and brushing the whole thing with an egg wash. Hmmm. My instructions said to crimp the edges. But what with? In desperation, I sterilized a pair of pliers from my tool drawer. The end result was an acceptable, if not downright attractively crimped pie crust. I resolved to invest in some actual baking tools should this adventure in pastry turn out successfully.

Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with aged
cheese go into the oven for ten minutes

Nestled on a plate with sliced feta
and heirloom tomatoes drizzled with
pesto and olive oil, my stuffed dates
made an attractive appetizer
Next I turned to my first appetizer, a simple but elegant combination of plump Medjool dates stuffed with aged white cheddar and wrapped in slices of apple-cured bacon, then baked for five minutes on each side. Sweet, smoky, salty all in one bite, this riff on Rumaki, a classic Spanish appetizer of bacon-wrapped water-chestnuts stuffed with chicken liver, was easy and quick and, as I discovered, quite addictive. And finally, I carefully transferred dozens of deviled eggs, made from eggs I had dyed in a park program I presented the previous weekend, into a plastic transport bin before ascending to my dressing room, still without a clue as to what I would be wearing to dinner.

Eggs rest comfortably on Jan's
grandmother's deviled-egg plate
Fuchsia, the color of spring, stared back at me from a rack of clothing in my closet. In the form of a vintage cotton jumpsuit by Joan Walters that I bought at JCPenney Company when I worked for the retailer back in the 1970s, it would be perfect to wear to Easter dinner -- comfortable, forgiving, stylish – and Easter-egg colorful!  I pulled it on, pairing it with nude platform pumps by Call It Spring and a hammered silver necklace and earrings from Thailand that I’d received for Christmas from Jan’s brother, Robby, and his wife, Ging.

Jan looked gorgeous in her vintage
Candace Cole in apricot silk.  We both
wore aprons while enjoying a glass of
wine before dinner
Suddenly I smelled something burning. I ran downstairs to discover that I had not heard the buzzer go off. The crust of my beautiful apple pie was charred around the edges, but the pie itself seemed to be no worse for wear.  I pulled it from the oven and set it in an antique wicker pie safe that had belonged to my mother.

The day was cold and rainy, not the sort of day that lends itself well to egg hunts and outdoor frivolity.  Robert was putting the finishing touches on an elegant lamb roast when I arrived, and soon I was busy in his kitchen, setting out my appetizers and assisting Robert with his preparation of sautéed asparagus, Panko-encrusted eggplant, roast potatoes and a green salad.

First there were
ducks at the back-
yard birdfeeders
Suddenly, a hawk
appeared, scaring
all the little birds
As we ate we were treated to a look at a variety of bird species as they visited Jan and Robert’s feeders just outside the patio doors which grace their stylish dining room. Among the robins and cardinals and sparrows was a pair of large ducks who seemed out of place scratching in the grass beneath the feeders beside the tiny songbirds. A few minutes later, that bucolic scene was replaced by one with considerably more tension: a young Cooper's hawk landed on the bird feeder and watched, silently, as an unsuspecting squirrel scratched at the earth beneath her. Not another bird was anywhere to be found, large or small, but the squirrel seemed undaunted.  We watched from the dining table, enjoying this pleasant distraction.  Eventually the hawk flew away and we returned to our holiday supper.

Jan's brother, Robby, is married to
Ging, who is from Thailand. Here,
she poses with their son, Jimmy,
and Robert and Jan's poodle, Chanel
When it was time for dessert, I was uneasy about serving my scorched pie, certain that my future as a pastry chef had come to an abrupt conclusion. I needn’t have fretted. Everyone insisted that the pie was delicious despite its blackened perimeter. It may take three months of weekly pie-making to perfect my technique, but at least my first attempt was tasty. Perhaps my future in baking might be resurrected after all.

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