Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Baking by the seat of my pants

I’m a baking rebel who must always change at least one measurement or ingredient in a recipe, and often more than one. Most of the time I use no recipe at all and just eyeball it. Results have been some of the worst things I’ve ever made--those culinary disasters that are carried to the backyard and chucked over the fence. But some of my experiments, especially my apple pies, have gone down in history as one-time magical works of art that can’t be duplicated.

The road to a magical pie is simple—start with a basic pie recipe, then tweak it.

Things to keep in mind when baking an apple pie:

* Most bakers will tell you that the best apples pies come from a combination of apples, and I agree. I never bake a pie using a single variety. By mixing them up, you combine apples of different strengths and qualities, the main ones being flavor, texture, and moisture.

* Good apple-pie apples include, but aren’t limited to, the following:

Jonathan: You can never go wrong with a Jonathan. It has all of the qualities of a good apple, especially when it comes to flavor and texture. A Jonathan apple might seem boring, but there’s a reason it’s been such a popular apple for so many years—it keeps well, has a good flavor, and doesn’t turn to mush when cooked.

Winesap: Winesaps are all about flavor, and a couple of these in your pie can add interest.
Granny Smith
Golden Delicious: Never bake a pie of all Golden Delicious, but adding one or two will increase flavor, moisture, and sweetness. If you add Golden Delicious, you can decrease the sugar.

*Never bake with a Red Delicious apple. I’m guessing that the Red Delicious is the most photographed, painted, and drawn apple in the land, and it’s graced the cover of many a magazine and book. But the Red Delicious apple is an example of getting by on looks alone. The Red Delicious is bland, grainy, and tasteless, but undeniably gorgeous.

Here are some combinations I might consider when plotting my apple pie:
Four Jonathan, two Winesap, one Golden Delicious
Four Granny Smith, two McIntosh, one Winesap
Four McIntosh, two Winesap
Four McIntosh, one Jonathan, one Golden Delicious
Three Granny Smith, two Winesap, one Golden Delicious

Other things to keep in mind:
* Size matters. I’ve experimented with this, and apples slices can be too thick or too thin. Too thick creates pieces that might not cook thoroughly, and too thin creates a pie that is too dense.

* It might be tempting to slice the apples directly into the pie pan, then sprinkle the dry ingredients over the top. I’m a lazy baker and I’ve done this. I can tell you that it works, but the pie won’t be as tasty. Coating the apples evenly is important if you want a magical pie.

* Adjust sugar according to the sweetness of the apples used. For instance, I would reduce the sugar to 3/4 cup or less if adding two Golden Delicious apples. Also, nutmeg isn’t necessary; it’s a matter of preference.

Standard pie recipe


2 (9 inch) unbaked pie crusts
7 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples
1 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees
In a bowl combine apples, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Place mixture in a pastry-lined 9-inch pie plate. Dot with butter and adjust top crust that has been vented.
Place in oven and bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn oven temperature down to 275-300 degrees and bake 40-50 minutes or until crust is golden brown and apples are tender. Let cool and serve.

A comprehensive apple resource: Orange Pippin

Monday, October 24, 2011

Excelsior Bay Books

Tonight is the last event of my book tour which began September 20. The past several weeks just flew by, but when I think about the launch at Once Upon a Crime...that seems so long ago!

Tonight the tour closes with an event hosted by Excelsior Bay Books in Excelsior, Minnesota. This get-together of food, discussion, and signing will be held at 318 Cafe. I'm going to arrive early and plan to grab some food and chat with people. Join us!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fear and Bravery

“You were so brave to write this book.”
“This is a story that needed to be told.”
“Thank you for writing this book.”
“Weren’t you afraid?”
“Aren’t you afraid?”

These are the things I’ve heard the most on tour for The Orchard. Some come with hugs and tears, some with hand-wringing and worry. And fear. Whispers of things seen, but never shared. Reports sent to government agencies, stacks of them, ignored, covered up.

Hopelessness. Helplessness.

And yes, I was afraid. And yes, I am afraid. Fear holds all of us back at different points in our lives. It’s okay to be afraid, especially if we push through it. Especially if we can use that fear to drive us forward.

You meet it, and you take it with you, and you use it for fuel.

I often asked myself what my legacy would be if I did not tell this story. I owed it to myself, my children, and the biggest key player of all, someone who wanted this story told to the world. Someone who never had a voice.

I was asked to do two things—plant a birch tree in a very specific location, and write this story.

The birch tree (a tree that symbolized a different geographical location and freedom) didn’t happen because I was unable to get permission to plant it, and the story took me a while, but I did it.

I’ve always been an observer of life, not a participant. But sometimes we reach a point where we know it’s time to participate. It’s time to speak up. And if people think major publishing houses don’t have a heart and soul, the publishing of The Orchard is proof that they do. They have big hearts, and they have big souls. And they know an important book when they see it. Yes, it was brave of me to write this book, but it was brave of Hachette/Grand Central Publishing to publish it.

I applaud all of the unsung heroes within the publishing house who embraced this book. Editors, editorial assistants, marketing, reps, publicity. I think there's been a sense that this is bigger than individuals, and it isn't so much about numbers as it is about the world we live in, and the world we want to leave our children.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Have you heard of an authors feast, but had no idea what it was? Same here. But now that I've been to one, I can tell you all about it. Authors lie naked across a banquet table, and booksellers eat food from your body while you tell them about your current book.

Wait a darn minute.

I'm not sure that's right. I think that was a dream. Yeah, I'm pretty sure it was a dream. Okay, scratch the naked on the table part. Now I'm sitting fully clothed at the table. Booksellers around me. They eat while I talk about my book. (All attending authors are fed before the event. One author to every table.) After ten or fifteen minutes, we're told to change tables. An escort leads us to the next table where we are surrounded by booksellers and we tell them about our book. After ten or fifteen minutes, we're told to change tables and we do it all over again. I'm guessing there were twenty to thirty tables at the event I attended in Detroit (GLIBA, Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association). Each writer visits three tables in all. It took me one table to really get into the groove. Sorry, first table. I couldn't quite grasp that I was supposed to do almost all of the talking all of the time. That seemed rude, but by my second table I understood that this is all about sharing my book with booksellers. It sounds weird, but it was actually very nice.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Tour

I'm in the middle of my book tour, but I wanted to drop in with a couple of photos from Raven Hill Orchard located in Julian, California.
This was a book event put together by Susan McBeth of Adventures By the Book. She partnered with Slow Food Urban San Diego, and the adventure was truly the best book event ever.

A journey with Adventures By The Book is like diving into a pop-up book.

Readers join authors on a wonderful trip that allows them to experience the book in a personal way. We took a bus ride to Julian, California, where we toured Raven Hill Orchard, picked apples, wandered through the town, ate lunch, drank beer, ate apple pie, talked about books, talked about writing, talked about Slow Food Urban San Diego, talked about The Orchard, and then returned to San Diego while watching the wonderful documentary Queen of The Sun. The package was inexpensive, and all of the readers received a copy of The Orchard. The weather was as perfect as weather could be. About 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. A perfect, perfect day.

The following day I had lunch with the most lovely group of women ever. Almost everyone at the luncheon had already read The Orchard and loved it, so that was extra nice. It's a different kind of event when readers have read the book beforehand. The discussion unfolds naturally, and the enthusiasm for the book seems to energize the room. So rewarding for a writer. Both experiences were fantastic in different ways.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


In conversation, I might accidently say something about the apple farm where I grew up. And then I have to correct myself and say the apple farm where I once lived. But sometimes it seems that my life truly started when I moved to the apple orchard, and ended when I left. This is not to minimize the life of city dwellers or suburbanites, but life on the farm, no matter how hard, no matter how isolating, feels real times a hundred.

On the farm, we can sense fall before it arrives. It’s not the temperature, but more of an instinct. Subconsciously we know when the sun disappears below the horizon in a certain location, apple season is upon us.

On the farm, we watch and test the apples, cutting samples daily as we wait for the right level of ripeness in order to commence harvest. It varies depending upon variety. Cool nights will put just the right amount of blush on a Winesap, and a dip close to freezing will make Red Delicious almost purple. The flavor itself is determined by soil and rainfall, sunlight and magic. In a perfect season, everything happens at the right time, and harvest launches into full swing long after those tart summer apples have come and gone, long after they’ve been turned into applesauce and consumed at a family picnic.

As the days grow shorter and the evening air takes on a chill, it’s time to attach flatbeds to tractors and haul large wooden boxes to the orchard where the containers are dropped off at trees that await pickers. Early morning comes, and the pickers pile into trucks that take them to the orchard. Once there, they strap on metal picking baskets and balance tall ladders with wide bases and narrow tops against horizontal limbs. The metal baskets fit against the body like a baby carrier, leaving both hands free to pluck ripe fruit from the highest branches. Once the baskets are filled, the picker climbs down and unwraps the ropes that open the canvas bottom of the picking basket, gently releasing the apples into the wooden boxes that will later be delivered to the sorting room.

Every day of picking brings us closer to a complete harvest. Every storm that misses the farm and every freeze that doesn’t happen brings us nearer to season’s end.

Full crates are stacked on pallets, and a barn that was empty gradually fills, the smell of apples increasing with each day, saturating our flannel shirts and hair until we lose track of where we end and the orchard begins.

We’re up before dawn, and in bed long after midnight. On cold mornings, sluggish bees cling to apples as if trying to stop the approaching winter. Dew-covered fruit is dumped on a conveyor belt that sorts by size while workers manually watch for bruises and blemishes, plucking the imperfect from the line. The sorted apples are crated, most ending up in the saleroom for purchase, but seconds and small apples will find their way to the cider room to be pureed and layered between cider cloths and wooden slats, pressed until no more juice can be extracted. What’s left between the cider clothes is called pummy, and it looks like light-colored chewing tobacco. Nothing is wasted, and the pummy is driven to a pasture and fed to cattle that follow behind as the apple remains are shoveled from the wagon while bees hover drunkenly.

The best cider is made from a combination of apples, the foundation being traditional varieties such as Jonathan to ensure that the result isn’t too sweet. True cider is 100% juice with nothing added. As with cider, the best pies come from a combination of both tart and sweet, and also a combination of textures--apples that stay solid and apples that cook down. Experiment. Add a little nutmeg. Let every pie be a new creation. No two pies will ever be the same, and no two growing seasons will produce the same flavor of apples.

On those beautiful fall days, customers drive from the cities and small towns to the salesroom in order to inhale the aroma of newly picked apples and fresh cider. They have a vague notion of the labor and of how the apples got there, got into this bag on this table in front of them. Most don’t care how the trees were pruned in the cold of winter, or how bees were trucked in to pollinate the blossoms in the spring, or how half of the crop was lost due to an early frost. They want the experience of the moment. They want to touch something hard to define. Maybe it’s their past. Maybe it goes back even further, to Adam and Eve.

What I'm doing:

I'm preparing to participate in a few events In California. One is the brainchild of Susan McBeth and Adventures By the Book. You can read about it here.

The following day takes me to Manhattan Beach, California and Ladies, Lunch, and Literacy
, followed by a signing at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Redondo Beach.

The comment section is closed due to my book-tour schedule.