Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Ruminations on Perfectionism and Lemon Cream Pie

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One of my favorite things anyone has ever said to me about writing was a Voltaire quote one of my wonderful teachers passed on to us in the early months of my MA: "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good".  After years of angsting about writing rather than doing it, my bookshelf littered with beautiful, empty journals too pretty to write mediocre things in, that sentiment resonated hard in my heart.  I determined to give myself credit simply for doing, even just for trying, or simply for remembering an idea – anything to encourage myself to build up momentum instead of stopping in despair.  And it worked, most of the time.  Okay, the beautiful journals still sit empty on the shelf, but now I buy myself unimpressive, blandly designed journals and write in them without concern for perfection.  And when I was in Italy, my amazing friend and writing coach Magda held me to a deadline of 5,000 words a week, and I gave myself the space to write about anything I felt inspired to write – of course, what this means is that I now have somewhere around 40,000 words to sift through and fill holes in, and the majority of what I have is off-plot-line or too heavily biased toward subject matter that was less excruciating to write about, but it's a start.  And that was good enough, at least for the moment.  

My attitude toward baking is similar: as long as people can eat it and enjoy it, I'm happy.  My baked goods rarely come out looking beautiful or professional, and they're almost never consistent in size/texture/bake, which is the main reason I never even considered doing GBBO.  Still, my laid back attitude sometimes leads to legitimate failure in the kitchen (two weeks ago I made some very dense 'muffins', 70% of which I threw out).  And it doesn't always hold up in the face of potential let-downs.  I have definitely had my baking meltdowns, as well as plenty of cases of simple 'that wasn't good enough' melancholy.  For example, the lemon cream pie I made last weekend hit a few too many snags and had me feeling pretty crappy for a while, and now that I want to post about it and I'm looking at these photos in the light of day, after spending all evening editing them with f.lux on, then turning it off and trying to undo the damage, all I can say is 'I'm sorry'.  I'd like to re-do all of it – the pies, the photo editing, even my hair in the photos – but I'd rather get this post up and keep the small amount of momentum I'm beginning to rebuild here in this, my little bakery corner of the internet.


So in the spirit of doing rather than perfecting, let's get cracking on this post about lemon cream pie!  (Sorry I'm not sorry about that pun.)

This pie is another one of those baked goods I made long ago, this one baked in London to widespread acclaim, and yet never posted about – somehow it seems I also never instagrammed it, which is SHOCKING and which I had to scroll through my entire feed to discover, which wasn't the most emotionally sensible way to spend a Tuesday morning.  Nonetheless, I do remember it being a stonking good pie; I've never liked the meringue part of lemon meringue pie, but I adore lemon desserts, so when I saw a recipe for what is essentially a lemon meringue with freshly whipped cream instead of meringue I was thrilled, and the result was as delicious as I'd hoped.  The entire pie was eaten in a day and a half, by me, my ex, and a few lucky girlfriends I'd invited over to gossip and nibble by the canal.  Once it was gone, I vowed to make it for every special occasion going forward.

Which brings us to a month ago, when I was talking to my friend Bushra about desserts and baking and citrus deliciousness and remembered that I hadn't made a lemon cream pie since that first time.  Are you sensing a bit of a distractable nature in me?  Because you wouldn't be wrong.  Anyway, I vowed anew, this time with a witness, that I would make that pie again, and Bushra, being the organized, not-distractable person that she is, held me to it and even set a date for a dinner to which I would bring this theoretical pie.  I was locked in.

The morning of the dinner, having printed and doubled my recipe (tripling the filling) and figured out how much time I would need to do the various baking and cooling processes involved (at least four hours, preferably five or more), I got up and went to the grocery store to gather my ingredients.  I went all organic because I could, but I won't blame that for the ensuing slip-ups.  Anyway at this point everything was under control: I got my stuff, got a ride to my parents' house (Bushra lives next door so I was baking at the rents' for convenience and kitchen size), and got started.  I even had a photographer on hand to help me document what I was sure would be a flawless process (although he didn't tell me my hair looked so funny – cheers, dude).  Everything was going so well.

Until, you guessed it, things didn't.  It started with the crust.  I went the storebought route but I wanted it to be as good as possible, so I splurged on organic Whole Foods Pâte Brisée, which looked lovely and buttery and promising.  The catch: I only had one set of pie weights.  I decided to trust that the second pie – which was an extra anyway, really just there to give non-dinner-attendees a taste of what I'd been raving about for years – would still be delicious, even if the crust shrank during the blind bake and wound up looking a little silly. And shrink it did, until it was more like a buñuelo than a pie shell.  Insert teeth-gritting emoji here.  But still, I figured it would be fine; I would just make it more like a round slab of lemon bar than a pie.  No sides, no problem, right?

Wrong (bet you guessed that one too).  Turns out that crusts with no sides have no reason to stay in place when you pour in the custard mix.  The buñuelo was fine when I first covered it with filling, but when I picked the dish up to put it in the oven the pastry came away from the bottom and floated up to the top of the liquid, and the only solution was to fish it out and bake the filling on its own.  Again, though, I shrugged it off.  No biggie, my mom and most of the other people I wanted to try this pie didn't really like the crust that much anyway, and we still had a (slightly misshapen but very homemade-looking) pie to take to dinner.  I poured the extra filling into a loaf tin, bunged all three receptacles in the oven, and set my timer, still feeling pretty good about the whole thing.


But when they came out, I was much less sure.  The custards looked good, but they also looked kind of weird, and while one seemed a bit overbaked the other seemed likely to be too gooey.  The dinner pie, on the other hand, had set and looked okay, but the crust was far too dark and raggedy for my liking.  My heart sank a little but I tried to keep my spirits up – we wouldn't know anything until we tried the extras.


Inevitably, as the pies/custards cooled, things went from not-great to worse.  The dinner pie cracked, and while I knew I could (and gladly would) cover that with cream I was anxious that it might be a sign of overbaking or some other mistake; plus, alas, Bushra wasn't really interested in the cream part, so it wouldn't do me any favors where her good opinion was concerned.  The custards still looked okay at first glance, but the texture at the edges looked a bit rough.  I pressed on, since there was no going back now, but my excitement was pretty dampened by then.

I threatened to go buy a beautiful and ridiculously expensive lemon tart from Miette, but eventually I got a hold of myself and opted instead for a nice, distracting lunch with my photographer, then came back to whip the cream with slightly higher spirits.  Luckily, the next step of the process went fine (lies: I messed up the gelatin the first time but I fixed my mistake easily), and I slathered the disappointing custards and pie with the beautiful thick white cream and stuck them all in the fridge to set while I relaxed and tried not to stress too visibly.

Then it was time to try the secondary pie, now a custard without a crust.  It looked beautiful, and I knew from tasting during the process that the cream was delicious and rich, but the proof is in the eating, and the minute I cut into the custard I knew it wasn't right.  The smooth, creamy texture it should have had was replaced with a lumpy, almost grainy overbaked mouthfeel.  I lost the last of my composure and the disappointment flooded my tired mind and body; it was too late to give in and buy a backup, and anyway I had promised something homemade to Bushra, so at that point it was over.  I had failed.


My photographer tried to prop me up by reminding me how good it looked and tasted, but despite my feelings about perfection not being the most important thing about baking, I know for a fact how important texture is in something you want to put in your mouth – I'm the kind of person who can't eat okra and spends ten minutes cutting every sliver of fat or tendon off her meat, so texture is obviously a priority.

Nonetheless, dinner was in a couple of hours, so all I could do was hope that the center of the crusted pie would have the right texture (the very center of the loaf-tin custard was a much better consistency than the gnarly edges), and that at the very least Bushra would get a sense of the flavor profile that had so taken me years ago.  I'd just have to make her another one someday in the future, and do a better job, although for the life of me I couldn't see why so many things had gone wrong this time.

I won't lie to you: I was mopey about the whole thing, even as we walked up the steps to Bushra's apartment and she exclaimed over how nice the pie looked – all I could think was how disappointed I was in myself.  This is one of the reasons I don't like to tell people I bake, because then I fuss and bother over whether I'll live up to some theoretical standard they'll have in their minds of 'good baking' (which is usually much more my issue than theirs), and it takes all the fun out of it for me.  I prefer to just make things and share them, no expectations involved.  But I'd screwed myself on this one.

Dinner was lovely, as always, and between the wine and the company I managed not to worry too much about the pie until it was cutting time.  When that time came, I stood over the pie and held my breath, reminding myself of my photographer's theory that the crust would have regulated the temperature and protected the custard on this one, and hoping against hope that he was right.

And then the piece slid out of the pie, and lo and behold, it was good!

lemon cream pie instagram

The texture had turned out perfectly by some miracle of science or luck or well-wishes from someone good-hearted.  I didn't really care why it had come out so well; I was just relieved it had.  I ate my whole piece with the kind of gusto that only comes with satisfaction after major self-doubt.  It tasted phenomenal.

I will make it again, damn it, and next time I will A) just make one very good pie, B) make my own crust and blind-bake it very carefully, and C) risk underbaking rather than overbaking.  As things stand, I'm just relieved that Bushra's pie was good, and that the other custard-abominations are in my parents' fridge instead of my own.

Lemon Cream Pie:

Preheat oven to 425F/220C and line a pie dish with pastry, either homemade or store-bought. Cover crust with aluminum foil, folding the overhang over the edge. Fill with pie weights or dried beans or rice. Place on a baking sheet and bake until set and lightly golden, about 20 minutes. Remove weights and foil and bake 5 to 10 minutes more (if crust bubbles up, gently press down). Let cool completely.

Reduce oven to 350F/175C. In a large bowl, whisk together:
     4 eggs
     1 c sugar
     1/2 c sour cream
     1/4 tsp salt

Gradually whisk in:
     3/4 c fresh lemon juice (about 4 large lemons' worth)

Carefully pour into cooled crust, then place pie dish on baking sheet and bake 25-30 minutes, until barely set (the center should still wiggle a bit).  Let cool completely.

Once the pie is cool, make the topping.  In a small saucepan, let soften for five minutes:
     2 Tbsp cold water
     1 tsp unflavored gelatin (sprinkle this over the water) 

Heat over very low heat, stirring constantly, until gelatin dissolves.  Set aside to cool.  

Meanwhile, in a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat until very soft peaks form:
     1 1/2 c heavy cream
     1/4 c sugar

While continuing to beat, slowly add gelatin, and keep beating until soft peaks form.  Using a rubber spatula to make a pretty pattern, spread over the cooled pie.  Refrigerate uncovered at least an hour, until ready to serve (or until ready to taste-test and panic – your call) or, loosely covered, up to a day.

1 comment:

  1. colleen in london1 April 2015 at 11:37

    Ugh! I have experienced this so many times--baking something for a special dinner and having it all go wrong for various reasons. I can still feel the sting from a green garlic custard that just completely fell apart. But the final pie looks fabulous (and I'm a sucker for any kind of citrus pie, so they all look pretty good to me). Plus you've turned me on to apple slab pie now. NOM.


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