The Joy and Heartbreak of Apple Trees

I planted two apple trees 10 years ago. Each year, I faithfully watered, fertilized, pruned and cleaned up around the trees. I even tried sprays to control for insects and blights.

And I got no apples.

Deer invaded our yard and ate the new growth. We put up a fence. One tree died after five years when some rodent chewed up the tender graft point. The other tree lived but never thrived. It didn’t take root properly and blew over in a hurricane. I rerooted and staked it. I kept up the orchard husbandry. I got a few apples, but most of them were lost to squirrels, birds, and bugs.

Two years ago, I said the heck with it and left the tree to its own devices.

This year I got a ton of apples.

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Only took 10 years to get these apples

OK, not a ton, but a good basketful and more on the tree to harvest soon.

Joy at finally having my work pay off? Yes. Heartbreak that the apples are malformed, shot full of bugs and not that tasty? Again, yes.

Out of the whole basket, only these three apples look “good enough” to maybe pass for supermarket apples:

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Winner, runner-up and third place in my backyard-grown apple beauty contest

Who am I kidding? If most people saw these apples at the store, they’d pass them by. The next time you buy apples at the market, think of how much human intervention is required to get something picture-perfect.

If you have ever been apple-picking, you’ve noticed that commercial orchards keep their trees pruned to the point of being stunted, for easier harvests and bigger yields. My grandparents pruned their trees annually and still had to use a homemade apple-picker made out of an old broomstick and a twisted wire coat hanger to pick some fruit.

Because I have not pruned the tree in a few years, it’s even harder to harvest. I had to buy one of these telescoping fruit-picking gizmos.

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Long arm of the fruit tree cultivator

From the ground, looking up into the branches, lots of great fruit seems within reach. I finagle the fruit-picker under a tasty-looking apple, pluck it, and pop it into the basket. It looks pretty good:

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Right side

Then I flip it over:

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Wrong side

Yuck. Damn birds.

I mean, I love birds and I don’t mind sharing a few apples with them. But they prefer to peck at many apples instead of just eating one. Hey bird – if you’re going to start an apple, finish it before you go onto the next one!

Many pecked-up apples rot on the tree, Those that fall get a second life as a meal for raccoons and squirrels. This windfall encourages the raccoons and squirrels to visit again and again. I try to vigilantly pick up any fallen apples right away, but every morning some more lie on the grass, chewed and brown and yucky.

I took the basket of “good” apples inside, washed them, then got to work prepping them. These are Cortland apples, meant for cooking not eating. They’re good for pies, sauces and things like that. I figured I’d made an apple crisp. I mixed the apple pieces with the juice of a lemon, 1/4 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg and cinnamon. The crisp topping is made from 1/4 cup each of butter, flour, brown sugar and chopped toasted pecans.

An hour of coring, peeling and slicing, and an hour of baking later:

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Apple crisp

It was pretty tasty – the apples are pretty tart, which I like. I feel a great sense of joy at this too. And then I think of all that work just for one apple crisp, to be enjoyed for a couple of meals when I could buy something similar for a few bucks. Heartbreak again!

A Year in Review

I happy that I scored a few accomplishments in 2018 in my distaffian pursuits, besides sewing. In no particular order, here they are, plus some recommendations in case you’re interested in knowing more.

Survey Research and Statistics

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I enrolled in a graduate program in survey research. I took an intro to survey research class in the spring and a statistics class in the fall. I recommend that everyone gets to know a little about surveys – how they’re conducted, what a good one looks like, what a bad one looks like, how the math is done and how to interpret results.

There are so many surveys these days. I estimate I get a request to take a survey at least twice a week – mostly marketing and customer service surveys where companies want to know why I bought or  didn’t buy something or what my experience was like. Sometimes a pollster calls me for a public opinion survey or a political poll. I used to say “thanks but no thanks” to surveys, but after learning more about them, I participate more often.

A couple of takeaways:

  • People like to harp on surveys that are “wrong,” but they rarely are wrong. Most 2016 US presidential polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win by a slim margin. Most Brexit polls predicted the UK would vote to “remain,” by a slim margin. Those surveys were not wrong. A slim margin is still a margin – the margin represents the likelihood that the outcome would go the other way. It’s unlikely, but it does happen, as we know all too well.
  • Innumeracy is a problem. Many people do not understand simple statistics and random chance. For example, if you flip a coin, the chance it will be heads is 1 in 2 (expressed mathematically as 0.5). If you flip a coin twice, the chance it will be heads twice in a row is 1 in 4 (0.5 times 0.5 = 0.25), but the chance is will land heads on each individual flip is still 1 in 2. The odds reset with each flip of the coin. If you flip a coin 9 times and it comes up heads 9 times, what’s the chance it will be heads on the 10th flip? Still 1 in 2. Every slot machine ever was built on peoples’ inability to understand this.
  • All surveys contain some kind of bias, no matter how well the pollster controls for it. For example, some respondents will modify their survey responses depending on the gender or race of the person asking the question. Some people will misunderstand a question. Maybe a question is poorly worded. The person asking the questions may not be clear or understand a response. Many other things can go wrong.
  • Survey fatigue is a problem. As more and more surveys are conducted, respondents are getting better and better at evading them. This makes it harder to get a decent response rate, which increases the cost and time it takes to do a solid survey. The old random-digit telephone dialing methodology doesn’t work well when so many people have cut the cord, and most young people have never had a land line at all. New technologies are needed to combat this.
  • Internet polls are useless. Seriously, don’t ever pay attention to what an Internet survey says.

These two college textbooks were pretty well written and approachable:

Elementary Statistics in Social Research by Jack Levin et al.

Survey Methodology by Robert Groves et al.

Also, the statistics posts on DrMath.com and the LinkedIn courses by Eddie Davila are good.

Easy-Does-It Gardening

I finished my perennial beds this year. A few things didn’t do so well, but all in all, I am happy with how this turned out. I am glad I spent the money to have the old bed dug up and new beds created.

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New perennial beds

I have learned the hard way not to engineer a perennial bed that closely. Maybe some gardeners are OK with fussing over everything, but I lack the money, time and energy for any high-maintenance plants. They have to grow with little love or supervision, or they’ll take their chances. That means no delphinium, which need constant fertilizer, or Asian lilies, which get eaten by bugs.

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Asters (blue) and false sunflower (yellow)

I didn’t design these beds but instead adapted a sample bed design from the book “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch. Not all of the plants were available in the varieties and colors the book suggested, but I was able to find decent substitutes. A friend gave me this book years ago. There’s a new edition out that has updated recommendations for plant varieties.

I’ll revisit the plan in the spring, as some plants likely won’t survive the winter. I wanted some white phlox, but I couldn’t find any – will seek again in the spring. Also, I think the design overall has a few too many “daisy” shaped flowers – I’d like more shape variety.

The vegetable garden turned out pretty well, considering the soil in my raised beds needs replacing. I augmented it heavily with compost – bought some in addition to what I made. As usual, I planted too many tomatoes.

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There is such a thing as too many tomatoes

And I really messed up with the seedlings I bought from a roadside stand. I will always go to a reputable garden center from now on.

Modular Cooking

In 2018 I discovered the joys of modular cooking. In brief, my husband and I cook and prepare a variety of proteins, veggies, starches, salads and soups that can mix and match into meals.

For example, in the summer I do every week a big mixed grill of vegetables, and in the winter I do a big pan of roasted mixed vegetables. The mixes are seasonal and vary a bit week to week.

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Mixed grill of summer vegetables

This mix above has bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash. Alongside this grill wok we cooked several chicken breasts and a few ears of corn. We get these meals out of it:

Meal 1: Chicken and veggies with corn on the cob

Meal 2: Chicken fajitas with the veggies, plus salsa and tortillas, with corn salad on the side

Meal 3: Pasta primavera with the veggies and the last of the chicken, plus some Parmesan cheese and a tossed salad on the side

Meal 4: Omelets with the last of the veggies, plus cheese, bread and salad

Winter takes on this concept start like this, with a whole roasted chicken and roasted root vegetables.

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Modular cooking in fall and winter

Dinner 1: Roasted chicken with sweet potatoes and roasted carrots and parsnips

Dinner 2: Chicken pot pie with some of the leftover chicken and roasted vegetables, plus a gravy and a pastry crust

Dinner 3: Stuffed sweet potatoes with leftover chicken, plus some nuts and dried fruit

Dinner 4: Chicken noodle soup, with broth made from the chicken carcass, plus pasta and the rest of the roasted veggies

This method of cooking is a revelation for me. For this to work, you have to be OK with leftovers, admittedly. Often as the week goes on, the more flavorful dishes appear. Hot sauce is my new best friend.

 

Garden Fail

We had a cold spring, and I was on vacation during prime spring planting season. So those are my excuses for why my vegetable garden looks like crap this year.

I usually buy seedlings at a suburban nursery about 1 hour roundtrip from my house. This year, already behind and short on time, I bought my seedlings from a pop-up store along the roadside.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Red bell pepper, Italian frying pepper, same thing, right?

This plant was marked as broccoli. It’s kale. And not the good kind of kale that makes a nice salad. This is the tough stuff that requires a half-hour in a pressure cooker to be edible.

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Also, because I was so late in planting, a few volunteers got started without me. I figured what they hey – fewer plants to buy.

I thought this was a cucumber plant, based on the leaves. It finally revealed itself this week as a butternut squash.

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Another plant with cucumber-vineish leaves turned out to be what I thought was a cantaloupe. We ended up calling it a “cantanope.” As in, is “It a cantaloupe? Nope!”

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It looks like a cantaloupe on the outside, looks like a honeydew on the inside, and has absolutely no flavor. I had to bust some myths – there’s no such thing as a canta-cumber, for one. And yes, it was “ripe.” It must have crossed with a honeydew, although I can’t imagine how as I have never planted one.

Finally, one volunteer did good. A cherry tomato, of course.

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Sometimes I think I should just plant cukes, cherry tomatoes and lettuce and be done with it.

Well, at least there’s a farmer’s market in the park on Sundays.

One Year, 7 Pounds, Lessons Learned

I have been trying to lose weight for a year. I have lost seven pounds. This is a good news story. Many people might say, “Seven pounds, in a YEAR? That’s not much.” Those people would be misguided. Seven pounds is a lot, especially for me, for two reasons:

  • I have around 15 pounds I want to lose, so seven pounds is about halfway there.
  • If I had continued on the road that caused me to gain seven pounds in the first place, I’d be even more overweight now.

To lose this weight, I tried two commercial weight-loss programs. I like the structure and accountability they offer. Here’s my quick review of them.

Noom

Summary: A weight-loss mobile app that provides daily articles to read and activities to do, plus tracking of food intake and exercise, and pairs you with a coach and a group for support. I learned a lot from this app, but I didn’t actually lose any weight during the four months I tried it. (I would lose a pound, then gain it back, on a repeat cycle, that is.)

What you eat: The diet itself is just a calorie-counting app, which breaks foods down in a stoplight system – eat lots of “green” foods, such as fruits & vegetables with high water content, some “yellow” foods, such as lean meat and dairy, and few “red” foods, such as sweets and fats. The app provides 1,200 calories a day, which left me starving and irritable most of the time. I think this very low calorie limit set me up for failure. There is such a thing as eating too little and putting your body into “conserve” mode. I often ate 1,400 to 1,500 a day, making sure the “extra” calories were for filling fruits and veggies. Still, every day I felt like I was one scary moment away from this:

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What you do for exercise: The system sets an activity goal that ramps up gradually to 10,000 steps a day (the app has a pedometer built in) and X minutes of exercise a day after that. I had no problem here. If you exercise more, you get to eat more, which seems to defeat the purpose of exercising.

What you learn: The best parts of Noom are the articles and activities, geared to change behaviors around weight loss. You learn not to fear the scale by weighing yourself daily. You learn your “big reason why” you want to lose weight – a very good exercise if you want to get at your real motivation.

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You can’t hide from the scale.

You learn how to deal with temptations by exposing yourself to them, to the point where they lose whatever meaning they had for you. You learn to identify triggers for overeating, how to deal with difficult people and situations, how to eat mindfully and how to cope with all those hormones and other bodily systems that conspire to frustrate weight-loss activities. The first two months the articles, activities and quizzes were great. And then the program changed and each day you got a lot of random crap, repeated articles and “duh” kinds of stuff.

Support: This was a big letdown. The so-called “coach” was really just someone who’d text you once a week and ask you to set a goal. If you reached out for support, the “coach” would get back to you, eventually, but would not offer any real guidance beyond asking you questions so you could figure out for yourself what to do. The coach did not seem to remember my issues or struggles – each week it was like the first time they’d ever met me. I looked up the coaches on LinkedIn and Glassdoor. They all looked to be thin people in their 20s, and some had training as dietitians or nutritionists. They said they coached up to 300 people at a time, which means they have only a couple of minutes each week max to spend with each person. The “group” support also was very lacking, as new people were coming all the time and others were dropping out. It’s hard to connect with anyone.

Cost: $99 for two months, with no extras to buy.

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Rollerblading like it’s 1999.

Best takeaway: The best thing I learned from my coach was to think back to when I was at my ideal weight. What did I do back then? How did I feel? What was an average day like? What were my struggles? I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and it helped me see my present a bit more clearly. When I was at my goal weight, for example, I did a lot more cardio exercise than I’d been doing lately, so I got back into that, in addition to my Pilates, walking and gardening.

Worth it? Not for me. If you are clueless about how to lose weight – that is, you have no idea how to eat healthy and you never exercise – Noom might be good for you. If you think this might work for you, I’d try the 2-month program. Be very careful to cancel before the renewal period if you plan to quit!

Slimming World

Summary: This British weight-loss system uses a proprietary restricted food list, online recipes, articles and support, and weekly group meetings led by a coach where members help each other in real-time chat sessions. I lost my seven pounds using this system and I recommend it, with reservations.

What you eat: The restricted food list is idiosyncratic but leans toward low fat, high carb. It includes unlimited “speed” foods such as most fruits and nonstarchy vegetables – you’re supposed to fill your plate 1/3rd with these foods every meal. You also can have unlimited lean proteins, starchy vegetables, pasta, rice, beans and a few other things.

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Curried chickpeas and couscous – fill ‘er up!

People freak out at the idea of eating as much pasta and potatoes as you want. This is ridiculous, of course, but the “all carbs are bad” school is pretty persistent.

You can also have one serving of whole wheat bread, certain cereals nuts and the like a day, and two servings of dairy. Finally, you can spend a very limited number of “Syns” on whatever you want – chocolate, alcohol, oils and butter, etc.

This system means that you eat very little prepared or processed food and almost no sugar. Since I like to cook, it was pretty easy for me to prepare my meals and avoid “Syns.” But it makes it very hard to eat out without asking for lots of adaptations, since most restaurant food has a ton of oil in it. And you can forget about pizza. I quibble with the tough stance on oils. A little healthy oil is very important for nutrition, and healthy skin and hair. I spend at least 2 Syns a day on olive or sunflower oil.

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What do you for exercise: There’s a “Body Magic” component that encourages activity. Do X number of minutes, X days a week, and you get an award. I got the awards pretty easily. The hardest one – “Gold” requires at least a half hour of exercise 5 days a week.

What you learn: Each day is a new day at Slimming World. You’re not meant to save up your Syns for a big splurge, but rather do the best you can each day. This was hard for me, as I have tended to think about weeklong blocks of time, but now that I am used to it I realize it’s better to focus on the present. I liked weighing in once a week though. You also are meant to plan, plan, plan so that you know ahead of time what you’re eating. This is not a diet for people who do things at the last minute or open the fridge and say “what should I have for lunch?” They have some handy tools, such as a “For and Against” list where you write down all the reasons for and against losing weight. Sounds dumb, but if you spend some time on it and revisit it from time to time, you learn a lot about yourself.

Support: The coach and groups are much more involved and high-quality experiences than with Noom. You choose a day and time for your hourlong group meeting – I happen to do Wednesday nights. The meetings happen in a chat format on Slimming World’s website. The coach leads the meetings, but the content is whatever you want it to be. Members can pose questions to the group and we’ll all chime in to help. Sometimes this gets tedious, especially when people have asked for breakfast ideas for the 10th time. But we often have real discussions about real problems, such as planning for holidays, dealing with food pushers and fitting exercise into daily life.

sw of the weekThe meeting also includes a lot of pep talks and awards. I’ve been “Slimmer of the Week” three times. The group and coach also are available during the week on a special landing page, or you can reach out to the whole Slimming World community. A few membersof my group exchanged personal numbers so we can text each other during the week. My one complaint is the website and mobile app are both very wonky – hard to use and prone to crashes and bugs.

Cost: The initial joining fee is $30, which includes access to the online community, articles and recipes, and a booklet. After that, it’s $10 a month. I paid $14 to buy a three-month meal and activity planner book because the website annoyed me so much. This was totally optional.

IMG_20180719_184423Best takeaway: I really like the planning. Each week I make a lot of modular foods that mix and match for meals. For example, I’ll grill or roast several chicken breasts and a pile of vegetables, boil a pound of shrimp bake a few potatoes, cook a pot of couscous and a pot of pasta, hard boil several eggs, and prep veggies for salads. Dinner of grilled chicken,  grilled veggies and corn on the cob one day becomes a pasta salad for lunch the next day and fajitas for dinner, etc. I almost always bring my lunch to work now, and I never have a day when I am hungry, there’s not much to eat in the house, and we end up ordering takeout.

Worth it? Yes, I recommend this plan. You will get out of it what you put into it (as with most things in life, right?) It’s easy to follow, you get support if you want it, and you can lose weight.

 

Going Sugar-Free

I am trying this week to go Sugar-Free, and I am not talking about switching to Diet Coke.

I am trying not to eat any added sugar at all, in anything.

This is harder than you might think. You can’t go sugar-free just by avoiding sweets. In the U.S. anyway, sugar is in almost everything. I went through my cabinets and fridge and marked with a sharpie all the sugar-laden foods with an X.

Why is there sugar in mayonnaise? I’ve made it from scratch before, out of only egg yolk, oil, mustard, lemon juice and salt. Same deal with spaghetti sauce. Aren’t tomatoes sweet enough? I definitely don’t add sugar to my homemade sauce.

 

Obviously, all cereals are out. I am not a big cereal eater anyway (this is my husband’s hoard), but I checked just for fun. Cheerios has only 1 gram of sugar per bowl – that’s about 1/4 of a teaspoon – so the best of the lot. Some of these so-called “healthy” cereals have 13 grams per serving – about 1 tablespoon of sugar.

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Oddly enough, the “Crispy Cocoa Rice” cereal is not the sweetest cereal in my pantry

I’m also astonished at how sweet foods have more than one kind of sugar in them. A barbecue sauce, for example, had two kinds of corn syrup, brown sugar, and plain ol’ sugar in it. Yuck.

Food companies do this mostly so that they can hide the amount of sugar in foods. U.S. regulations require food companies to list ingredients by volume, most prevalent to least prevalent, in the food. If they just used, say, corn syrup, that item would appear high up in the list, maybe even first. You think you’re eating tomato ketchup, but the label would reveal you’re eating corn syrup flavored with tomatoes. So they spread out the sugar content among several different types of sugars to hide this reality. There are more than 60! Common ones you see are: sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maple syrup, brown sugar, molasses, honey, agave syrup, cane juice, beet sugar, sucrose, fructose, etc.

Some people think that some kinds of sugars are “healthier” than others. Not true. It’s all basically the same. Just because honey and maple syrup come from nature doesn’t mean they’re less sugary than corn syrup that comes from a factory.

I stumbled upon another reality of processed foods – things tend to get sweeter over time. I had in my pantry two boxes of Kashi Cherry Dark Chocolate granola bars – one “original” and one “improved.” Obviously, these have sugar in them. I have been bringing them to work sometimes if I want a sweet treat to have with coffee, because it’s a better option than, say, a pastry or doughnut. I compared the old nutrition ingredients to the new, and look what I found:

The “new and improved” is actually “new and worse.” There’s more sugar and fat and less protein now, but more chocolate! The bar is denser and also stickier from the extra sugar. Brands like Kashi have a “health halo” around them. They use packaging and advertising to make people think their products are good choices, but they’re not.

Finally, here’s a Tale of Two Salsas.

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The one on the right is a Peach and Mango salsa. It’s sweet, yes, because there are peaches and mangos in there. Yet there’s also sugar and agave syrup, which is supposed to be “better” than corn syrup. As if.  WHY? The salsa on the left is a roasted tomato and pepper concoction – no added sugar. Its 1 gram of sugar occurs naturally in tomatoes. So it’s what I am going to have.

The Minimalist’s Pie

I am not much for desserts nowadays – too rich, too sweet, too many calories I’d rather spend on something else. But a little corner of my heart still loves a fruit pie. I grew up eating them and making them, as a child at my grandmother’s side. In New England tradition, pies are simple and not too sweet, with just a rumor of cinnamon in an all-butter crust. Eat a leftover slice for breakfast with a steaming mug of creamy coffee.

My minimalist pie starts with the right kind of apples: either Baldwins or Cortlands.

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This entire tote bag of Baldwin apples will make one big pie.

Cortlands are commonly found all over the place, but Baldwins are the apples to score if you’re lucky enough to have a diverse orchard nearby. Baldwins used to be everywhere years ago, but they’re  rare find today. I drive to Guilford, Conn to get some at Bishop’s Orchards.

My family grew two varieties of apples when I was growing up: McIntosh for eating and Baldwins for keeping. They’re a hard winter apple, not too sweet or too starchy. You can safely store them in newspaper in a cool place until spring.

 

I cut the apples with one of those eight-slice apple coring and slicing gizmos. Leave the slices whole – you want a bite of apple, not mush – and toss with the juice of a lemon to keep them from browning.

To the apples, I add a half cup of white sugar (again, not too sweet is the rule), 1 teaspoon of cinnamon (you want to taste apple primarily, with just enough cinnamon to perfume the pie juices) and a tablespoon of potato starch for thickening. You can find potato starch in the kosher section of your supermarket. It’s better than cornstarch because it keeps the pie juices clear, while cornstarch clouds the juices.

Then there’s the crust. That’s simple:

  • 3 cups of all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out  (get King Arthur, a New England brand, if you can swing it)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 pound of cold sweet butter (two sticks – I like Kate’s Homemade Butter from Vermont)
  • 8-10 tablespoons of ice water

An all-butter crust is crumbly and hard to work with, so if you’re not a pie doyenne, sub out half the butter for Crisco and you’ll have an easier time and a pretty good crust. I make my crust by hand, cutting chunks of the cold butter into the flour-salt mixture with a pastry blender in a big bowl. Sure, use a food processor if you’d rather.

Once the butter’s cut in to the flour into tiny pieces (no larger than a grain of raw rice) sprinkle in the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time. If it’s humid, 8 tablespoons of water will do. If it’s dry, you may need up to 10. Err on the “less is more” side – you can always add water if you need it, but you sure can’t take it out. You’ll know it’s done when it just holds together if you give a chunk of the mixture a good squeeze.

Rolling out the pastry is another “less is more” exercise. Sprinkle flour onto your counter and onto a rolling pin, Flatten the pastry with your hands into a disc and roll, center out, then lift from the counter, turn 90 degrees, flip over and roll again. Got that? It’s roll, lift, turn, flip. Roll, lift, turn, flip. A scraper helps with the “lift” part. You shouldn’t need to roll that much – 8 or 10 turns should do it. If the pastry is not cooperating, wrap it in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for a bit, then try again.

To transfer rolled pastry into the pie plate, wrap an edge of the pastry around the rolling pin and coil the rest of the pastry around, then unroll it right where you want it. (I can’t think of a better way to explain this – I imagine there are 100 videos on YouTube if you don’t understand.) If there are little holes or tears in the crust, just patch them as best you can. It’s homemade, after all. Don’t sweat it.

To get a good seal on the crust, wrap the overhanging bits of top crust under the overhanging bits of bottom crust and crimp them together with your fingers or a fork. Cut a couple of vents in the top crust so steam can escape. Brush the top crust with an egg wash (an egg beaten with a little water).

I use a clear Pyrex pie plate so I can see what’s going on as the pie cooks. I bake it at 400 degrees on a pizza stone to get a good crisp bottom crust. It’s done when the juices bubble thickly. Some may spill out – don’t worry about it.

Cool completely, or as completely as you can stand before eating.

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Happy Thanksgiving!