Two Lemon Pies, One Rattlesnake

It all started because I had a quart of buttermilk. I don’t even remember what I bought it for, though whatever the main recipe was, it was the second quart purchased for it, because I drank a lot of the first one. When I figured out there would be a lot of buttermilk left over after the recipe got made, I started imagining this lemon and buttermilk pie recipe I’d seen in one of my cookbooks.

That recipe might still be out there. Or I may have remembered it wrong. Or imagined it. But I didn’t find it this time. There was a buttermilk pie recipe in one of the cookbooks, but it had no lemon, and I also had a bag of sunny, bright yellow lemons that were encouraging each other to go bad. The thugs had to be removed and the rest needed to go somewhere good.

Flipping through Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts, 2011, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. I came across a Shaker Citrus Pie.  I’ve made probably half a dozen Shaker lemon pies since finding the recipe in 2013. That summer I wrote about the cookbook How to Build a Better Pie by Millicent Souris, 2012, Quarry Books, for edible Reno-Tahoe COOKS! It’s a bright, summery pie, very light, with a sweet filling and tart lemon topping.

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The first time I made that version, I used the crust from the cookbook, which is step-by-step for anyone nervous about attempting pie crust, and quite good. But my go-to crust for the last 10 years of so is from Baking with Julia, by Dorrie Greenspan and Julia Child, 1996, William Morrow Cookbooks. When I bought Baking with Julia, I stopped using frozen or premade crusts.

With two variations of Shaker lemon pies in open cookbooks right in front of me, and a bunch of lemons and oranges looking beautiful in the sun on the kitchen counter, it was only common sense I was going to make both of them.

And only logical that life would intervene. Which is how I can say for certain that if, once the fruit is cut paper thin and macerating in the rather astounding amounts of sugar, there’s no time to make the pie, the whole thing can be left in the refrigerator for at least four or five days. Mine were on the counter and did just fine, though the day before I finally made the pies, the weather changed and the daily highs shot into the high 70s – refrigerating is probably always the best option.

The Martha Stewart pie is different because it uses a pate brisee for a crust, which is an all-butter crust that’s described as flaky and sturdy at the same time.  It mixes up easily, is light and a slightly sweeter, richer crust than the Shaker pie from the Build a Better Pie book. The pie itself has no brown sugar, unlike the straight lemon version, and uses oranges in addition to lemons, giving the pie a little more sweetness in the fruit. It also mixes some of the macerated citrus in the filling, not just layered on top. My fruit was already many days macerating by the time I read I should julienne some of the pieces, so I just cut them roughly and threw them into the mixer when doing up the eggs and lemon syrup for the filling.

I found the way the citrus pie came together easier than the Build a Better Pie lemon version, because there’s no liquid poured over the carefully arranged citrus fruit. When pouring the liquid over the lemon version, I’ve had the lemons float up and find their own places to sit, which I resent – I’d like them to stay where I put them, and not act like cats and head off wherever they please.

The Build version is tart and explodes with flavor. The egg and brown sugar mixture poured over the lemons is sweet and the lemons tart despite all the sugar, probably because they’re only lemons, no other citrus. I love lemons and my husband doesn’t, so I’ve given away half a dozen of these pies. This one I had a couple slices of and then pulled the fruit off the top.

The fruit layer of the Martha pie is light and both sweet and tart; the oranges make the flavor pop. The filling is very sweet. Once I pulled the citrus off the top and told myself to stop eating it, it was hard to really do so. The crust was shiny with juice that had baked in, like a glazed cookie, if there is such a thing (if there isn’t, there should be).

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I made the pies Thursday May 4, a warm, sunny, still day in Reno’s North Valleys. I’d made both crusts the day before, then ran out of time and forgot to move them from the quick-chill in the freezer to the refrigerator, so I had to wait for them to thaw. Once they were in progress, I spent in between times reworking old short stories in the sunlight at the kitchen table.

This is where the rattlesnake comes in. When both pies were out and cooling, I wanted photographs of them on big rocks overlooking the dry lake and the valley, since the dry lake is full of flood waters and the valley gorgeous. I thought rocks, bright sun, beautiful vista, sunny pies would all complement each other.

Packing the pies into shopping bags because – strangely – I don’t have containers for toiling up steep, rocky foothills with pies in both hands (imagine!), I drove over to one of my favorite places to climb. Backpack on, phone strapped to arm, pies in each hand, I hiked over broken trails where flooding has etched deep channels in what used to be trail, and soft sand has silted into the new stream beds. The path itself is steep at the beginning, and made up of coarse, dry sand over hard dirt, which is slippery (since buying trail running shoes last year, I haven’t slipped once). When that trail makes a 90 degree turn and heads straight up the foothill, it becomes coarse dirt, hard dirt and rocks that have run off in storm after storm. It’s slippery and ankle-turning-dangerous. It’s also very, very steep.

It also doesn’t have big photogenic rocks on top. The rocks are another hike across more up and down and I didn’t have it in me to go the extra distance because by then, I’d met the snake.

When hiking to hike, I’m always looking around to see what animals might be nearby. Hikes are rated on the number of jackrabbits and cottontails, occasional coyotes, crows and magpies and little redheaded zombie birds I see. (Someday I’ll explain the zombie birds. Maybe.)

Today’s hike was awkward (pies), dusty (there were too many ATVs out, by which I mean two), ill-timed (I’d wanted to go early, and now at evening, the sun was angling into a glaring decline). I was watching the ground right in front of me, planning where to step. Usually I take the hard, rocky trail, moving back and forth over tire ruts to the least rocky sections as I go. But with the pies and the pace I was setting and it being my second hike of the day, I cut to the grassier section. The grass isn’t long and the tire ruts head over it, but it’s less rocky and easier.

And occupied. The rattlesnake was six to eight feet from me when I looked up farther than the next few steps and saw it. Diamond-shaped head, rattler design, coiled and shaking its tail at me and making no noise. Rattlesnakes shed their scales at some point, but I have no idea when. Maybe it hadn’t yet reached that level of annoyance, but it was shaking its tail and it was coiled and it was aggressively jutting its head in my direction.

I thought a bunch of stuff, all at exactly the same time:

Oh, bleep.

That’s a rattlesnake.

That’s way too close.

Move.

The non-thoughts, those that didn’t come in cartoon thought bubbles, included my distance from the snake (about six to eight feet, my shadow was nearly touching it and the sun was still high at 5:30), the snake’s probable length (about three feet, which is either as far as it can move in one strike or half what it can move in one strike, and I need to look that up again but am kind of past-tense afraid to).  I also thought that being on rocky, uncertain-footing ground, I couldn’t run or move fast, and that given the time of year, and my lack of knowledge about when snakes reproduce, I wasn’t going to blunder about without looking.

In other words, no leaping sideways and away.

It didn’t lunge. It didn’t strike. I obviously didn’t go any closer. I looked all around me, then gingerly moved to the left, back to the rocky path, where every single rock, stick and shadow now looked like a snake. I made a very large circle around it –

And then stopped to take pictures. I don’t know why. Except that I thought I was far enough away and I was kind of fascinated.

And probably kind of an idiot.

And then I went on to the top of the hill. Where my rocks weren’t.

My rocks weren’t where I left them. This happens to me a lot with anything even remotely geographical. By the time I saw they were another down and up, I gave up. The pies were heavy carried in bags, and the snake encounter left me shaking with adrenaline. I took a few photos from the top of the hill, and then made my very cautious, jumpy way back down, looking for the snake and never seeing it again, which was far less comforting than might be supposed.

This will be my fifth summer tramping about in the hills, and my second rattler encounter. Last year I passed a section in the same path, much farther down, and heard the unmistakable susurrus coming from a sagebrush. I’d heard rattles and dry rasps before and wondered, but the real thing strikes an atavistic response – there is no doubt what you’re hearing. I’ll never again wonder if a jackrabbit preparing to flee or a bunch of quail wanting me to go away are actually a snake. Snakes are snakes. The hackles on the back of my neck know the difference.

Theoretically if you don’t bother them they won’t go out of their way to bother you, which is good, but not all that reassuring. Rattlesnakes are aggressive.

And while I came out of the experience completely unscathed, I note this morning I’m letting the sun come up without my being out there running or hiking. It’s going to take a day or two, and some gratitude that this experience wasn’t any more up close and personal.

As for the pies, there’s only two of us in this household and I’m the only one who likes lemon. They’re delicate pies and ephemeral and I’m not going anywhere today, so no chance to give one away. Instead, I’m pulling the toppings off both and freezing them until I can figure out a good cookie recipe to chop them into.

Hopefully on that day it will be two batches of cookies, no snakes.

 

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These are not my rocks. These are miniature rocks.

 

 

 

 

Of Fake Lakes and Friday Night Pizza

This morning was my first hike of the season in one of my favorite parts of the valley. There’s a circle turnout off the street at the base of it, and the way up is very rocky, very steep, where once I encountered a jackrabbit in the sagebrush I was about five feet away from and we gave each other heart attacks as I blundered up the hill and he blasted out of the brush. From the top of the hill there’s an amazing view of the valley – and the fake lake.

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Right now the lake is full. This winter, the one finally, finally dragging to an end, we got most of our year’s worth of water in the first two months or some statistic like that I don’t remember exactly. It was wet out, that’s not an understatement.

The lake here is a dry lake. All summer it’s full of white hardpan and lots and lots of white dust that stirs into dust devils and coats everything in the house after dust storms roll through. But come spring runoff or a good winter of rains and snows (because runoff hasn’t really gotten going yet) it fills up. Across the lake from us is the Nevada/California border, with Bordertown on the other side, reflecting red neon in the water.

I love having a lake that comes and goes. I love how ephemeral the lake is, and how the desert changes from one hike to the next. I haven’t been up this foothill since October when it got too cold. But these weren’t here when last I was.

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Impatience sent me up half an hour before sunrise this morning, because it’s still cold in the morning. Monday I hiked at a little after sunrise and it was in the 40s. This morning I hiked at half an hour before sunrise when it’s first light and when I got back down the foothill 40 minutes later the temperature was 28.

Not much company this morning. Two crows displeased with my appearance. They nest in the rocks and two summers ago actively threatened me, flying lower and lower. Which just delighted me, to see their feet so clearly, so close. Crows apparently have communal nests, because there were three of them harassing me and more in the nest making sure I knew I wasn’t welcome. Today they just soared overhead as I clamored up the hillside.

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My favorite things in life, outside people and cats that I love, include hiking in the foothills, writing speculative fiction, baking.

And pizza.

Putting together the writing, the baking and the pizza, and my friend Robert once said I had invented a whole new fiction genre – pizza writing. It’s true – my characters, unless they have to go somewhere fancy for reasons of plot (and then they complain) head for their favorite pizza place. Not much I can say – so many TV shows, movies and books show characters ordering Chinese food.

I don’t like Chinese food. But I do like pizza. So my characters eat pizza.

And so do I, and so does my husband. My very favorite, despite having worked there in college (usually the kiss of death for a place) is Round Table. Pepperoni, the Maui Wowie thing with bacon and pineapple, a pepperoni and pineapple my friend Samantha once ordered by mistake (she meant ham)…. Our other favorite is Grimaldi’s Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria, located handily near our favorite movie theater in Sparks.

Then there’s mine. Refined over many years of practice, I’ve gone through different sauces, tried making my own (never quite got there), oregano’d the sauce for a long time, stopped doing that. Usually the pizza is split in half – half pepperoni and sometimes mushrooms for Rick, half pepperoni and pineapple or green olives or black olives or tomato on my side.

The recipe I developed started on the back of a package of either flour or yeast. It’s long since vanished, but what remains is the fact that it originally called for amounts that wound up with me having two pizza skins. We didn’t need two. So I turn the other half into breadsticks. Too many breadsticks, so we have a few before the itself goes in the oven, accompanying them with the grated mozzarella and sharp cheddar, the chopped up pepperoni and sometimes the sauce. One or two breadsticks stuffed with leftover sauce, cheese or meat make a nice lunch the next day.

Pizza may not be the healthiest dinner ever, but if the rest of the week is homemade chicken noodle soup and soy sauced pork chops with a side of green beans or a baked apple, it’s probably all right in the scheme of things.

After all, there’s a whole sub-genre of stories with pizza at its core.

The Dough

¼ cup hot water and 1 ¼ cups hot water

1 tablespoon active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

¼ cup olive or canola oil (I do not like olive oil in this, but it’s an option)

2 teaspoons sea salt

4 to 5 cups all purpose flour

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the ¼ cup hot water. Allow to sit for 2 minutes to dissolve, then mix in the salt, stirring to dissolve, and the oil. Add the remaining 1 ¼ cups hot water and stir.

 

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The yeast and water with salt and oil, looking like a crescent moon and a universe.

 

I generally add the first 3 cups of flour all a once and stir, then turn out the sticky mass onto the lightly floured marble cutting board. I might only knead in another half a cup, or might go has high as 4 ½ cups total, though that’s rare. I try to knead until the dough has just the slightest stickiness or dampness on my hands, but isn’t covering me with dough as I knead. Too much flour will make for hard, dry dough, so I pay attention not only to how it feels under my hands but also to how much flour it’s picking off the board. It the dough isn’t drawing any more into itself, it’s probably just about there. If there seems to be a little too much flour in the dough at that moment, keep kneading – it will probably soften and dampen again.

Scrape the bowl fairly clean of clinging batter and return the dough to it. A clean bowl’s nice for the rise but not a necessity. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. Allow to rise until doubled, usually 45 minutes to an hour.

 

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On to the first rise.

 

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place racks in upper third of oven.

Turn dough out on a cleaned, lightly floured board and punch down. Separate into two uneven sections, maybe 2/3 together and 1/3 by itself. Set aside the larger portion and divide the smaller portion into approximately 6 breadsticks. I don’t measure. I just break off pieces and roll them between my palms like Play-Doh. Place on a foil lined cookie sheet. Melt about half a tablespoon of butter and brush the breadsticks with it. Sprinkle the breadsticks with garlic salt. Bake in preheated oven anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for a deep golden crust to the tops (time is depending on how stubborn they are at browning this time).

 

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The ineffable pleasure of nicely risen dough.

 

When we first made the switch from margarine to anything else about 10 years ago, I experimented with other things to brush onto the breadsticks. I tried olive oil and didn’t like it on the dough anymore than I do in it. Tried various butters and finally hit on the salted butter, melted, and garlic salt lightly on top.

For the pizza, roll out the dough to pan size. A heavy dark pizza pan is a great investment – mine is flat, black and heavy, and has lasted a nice long time and the shiny, ridged, aluminum secondary pan I had was disposed of years ago. Top with sauce of choice (my favorite is Contadina Pizza Squeeze), cheeses of choice (mozzarella and sharp cheddar), and toppings of choice.

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Bake for approximately 13 minutes in the 500 degree oven. Transfer carefully to a cutting board. Promise yourself tomorrow’s dinner is a salad or a pork chop, and dig in.

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