Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pie Crust 101

Grant called the other day and asked, "Grandma, have you posted your pie crust recipe?" Well, no, I haven't, although I've posted a lot of photos of pies. A flaky, tender pie crust depends not only on ingredients but also on technique, which is hard to describe.

Let's start with ingredients. Pie crust has four ingredients: flour, salt, fat and a liquid. I use unbleached flour, preferable Hudson Cream, which is milled in Kansas. For the fat I urge everyone to use an expeller-expressed vegetable oil instead of solid vegetable fat or butter, neither of which is good for one's arteries. I've always used the "Stir and Roll" pie crust recipe from this old book. It calls for milk as the liquid. Maybe water would work as well, but I've never tried it.

Stir and Roll Pie Crust
for an 8" or 9" pie

2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup oil
1/4 cup milk

Whisk flour and salt together. Pour oil into a liquid measuring cup and add a little more than ¼ cup milk to it. Do not stir the oil and milk. Pour the oil and milk all at once into the flour. Mix with a fork to moisten all the flour. Form dough into a ball and divide it in half. Keep skin contact with the dough to the barest minimum, as the heat from your hands will warm the oil and make the crust tough.

Roll out half the dough between two sheets waxed paper into a circle larger than the pie pan diameter, keeping outer edges as even as you can. Peel off the top paper and, holding the bottom paper by the bottom edge, invert the crust over pie plate. Peel off the remaining paper and adjust edges to remove any trapped air. Roll out top crust. Remove top paper and, with a sharp knife cut a slit in the middle of the crust. Set this aside.

Add fruit filling to bottom crust and dot with butter. Moisten the rim of the bottom crust with cold water and invert the top crust onto the pie. Lightly press the top and bottom rims together. Trim overhanging edges. Flute the crust edges. Sprinkle with a little sugar for sparkle.

Bake at 400º until filling begins to bubble in the center of the pie. The amount of time depends on the temperature of the fruit and other factors, but count on a minimum of 25 minutes. If the crust begins to brown too much, reduce the oven heat to 375º and continue baking until the filling bubbles.

Additional tips:

Fluff up the flour before putting it in the measuring cup. Always measure flour in a dry measure and level it off with the edge of a knife.

Some folks don't know the difference between a dry measure and a wet measure. The dry measure is on the left. The wet measure is on the right. Colorado peaches are in the background. They make great pie.

The amount of milk needed to bind the dough together varies with the amount of moisture in the flour. In a dry climate or air conditioned building, more milk is needed. In a damp climate the 1/4 cup called for in the recipe will be sufficient. After mixing the dough if you find it difficult to gather into a ball, add a little more milk and mix lightly again.

Mix and handle the dough as little as possible. Recently my nephew made a pie for a family gathering. "I used your recipe, Aunt Shirley," he said, "but I mixed it in the food processor instead of stirring it." Oh, boy, was that crust tough! The crust will be tough even if you just stir the oil and milk together before adding them to the flour.

After inverting the crust onto the pie pan slowly peel off the waxed paper. Start at one corner of the paper and be patient as you loosen the dough. If this proves too difficult, dust the bottom paper with a little flour before you roll out the crust.

Keep practicing until you get the hang of it. Even your mistakes will be edible, maybe even delicious.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Rain Envy

The blessing of rain came at three o'clock this morning. There was lightning! There was thunder! When Dennis checked the rain gauge it registered 1-1/2 inches. We could hardly believe our good luck.

I sent a message to our neighbor Laurie. "How much rain in your rain gauges?" (They have three.)

"Half an inch," she replied, adding that she is going to move to our house, where we consistently get more rain than she does.

Here in the drought belt whenever there's rain in the area e-mail messages go flying between friends and neighbors. Typically these messages are initiated by those who got rain.

"We had a nice soaking rain for about 45 minutes. Hope it rained at your house, too," they say.

 Sometimes, though, the  person who didn't get rain initiates the exchange. "I heard thunder at three o'clock," Barb wrote this morning, "but it only sprinkled. Did you get rain?"

Right now we're obsessed with rain and long for it. Summer rain in Kansas is almost always spotty. Western Missouri is pretty much the same. My brother, who lives there, told me a few weeks ago that rain fell on the north half of his tiny town (population: 218) but not on the south half where he lives. That's how it always is: some get it, some don't.

Those of us who don't get rain rejoice for those who receive its blessing, but we also feel a twinge of that rascally, deadly sin of envy. We try not to, but we can't deny the feeling. We're so weary of dragging hoses around, picking and choosing the plants we will try to keep alive and watching the others dry up. All the while our hope and resolve wilt under the unrelenting heat.

We're only human. A little twinge of envy doesn't seem so deadly under these circumstances. And sooner or later, our turn will come.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Seeing Things Differently

I won't write about the continuing drought and heat. It's tiresome. Instead I'm wanting to share the spider tunnel I discovered this morning while sweeping the garage.

It is probably the home of a wolf spider, a kind of spider I rather like. I like it because it doesn't wander from its lair, instead waiting for its food to blunder into the trap. Consequently, it disposes of lots of pesky insects. I let one build its tunnel in my bedroom curtains one summer. We respected each other's territory.

This particular tunnel is interesting because it incorporates a number of dead leaves which provide camouflage. The spider incorporated one green leaf, which you can see forms the floor of the tunnel.

Here's where seeing things differently comes in. I took several photos of the tunnel and in one of them I saw the green leaf differently.

I saw a green face under a cowl, its eyes shaded by the cowl overhang. It appears to be a woman entrapped by the tunnel. She stares out mournfully. Maybe its easier to see if magnified a little.

OK, so you can't see it. Don't feel bad about it. I think it happens when I let my eyes go out of focus briefly, maybe a result of astigmatism. I see faces in the grain of wood, my cottage cheese bedroom ceiling, sand formations, even in the backs of my closed eyelids. These are not the faces of people I know; they are anonymous.

Dennis thinks I'm a little nuts, but seeing faces is one of my favorite entertainments. It always has been. I remember the first faces I saw as a child. They appeared on the front of Mother's buffet. They were two prim ladies facing each other in profile. They had formal hairdos.

Do I really see things that much differently? I'll bet other people out there have similar experiences. I hope they do.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hanging in There

The spotted fawn appears to have grown since it first appeared in these pages four days ago. Now it is tall enough to drink more comfortably from the bird bath.

This means that it is receiving nourishment from its mother, who also sometimes comes to drink along with another, younger doe. The trio also drink from our neighbor's bird bath.

They've never taken a drink from the large pot of water, although the fawn was tempted a couple of days ago. It approached the water pot several times, but jumped back in alarm when it got close enough to see its own reflection in the water. That's fine; we refill the bird bath several times each day for the deer and for the hordes of birds who come to bathe and drink.

Obviously our drought continues unabated, along with daily temperatures over 100º. As the photo shows, not all of the grass is dormant. Grass that is protected by the shade of trees still has some green showing. We don't water the grass, only recently-planted trees, the tomatoes and sweet potatoes, two clematis and the bed of hostas.

We don't hope for much good to come of this summer, but I'm hoping that this fawn will hang in there and live to maturity.

Friday, July 20, 2012


This morning, already edgy from the endless heat, I read a New York Times opinion piece by Mark Bittman, "Endless Summer." http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/the-endless-summer/ It brought tears to my eyes and a vision of what climate change will unleash upon us all.

I was fired up to write an appeal to America to wake up and smell the coffee, to make radical changes in our way of life, but then my practical side turned to thoughts of what we individual Americans might do to change course. I couldn't think of any actions we might take to overcome the complete power of big business. How can we as a people insist that we invest in benign forms of energy production, that conservation be encouraged, and that we begin to fulfill our obligations under the Kyoto Treaty, which George Bush reneged on. Business, now a person under rule of our Supreme Court, owns our government. They bought it with permission of the court and the cooperation of our federal government. There was no point in urging my fellow Americans to take action.

So I lay down on my bed, my refuge, to calm down. The ceiling and walls of the room are perfect meditation foci. Their angles and gentle color variations sooth my spirit. I floated.

When I felt restored, I thought of Candide, who roamed the earth finding trouble everywhere. He ended up back at home, tending his garden. When there's no viable course of action on the big stage, I remembered once again that I should do as Voltaire advised, tend my garden.

Unfortunately, there's not much garden to tend this summer, but the onions and shallots had been drying for three weeks and were ready for storage. I went to work, cleaning the shallots and filling a basket with them. Then I braided the onions, which look pretty if I do say so myself. Soon we will move them to the basement's cooler environment.

Next best to tending one's garden is baking, so I made a pie – blueberry with a peach thrown in for variety. By this time I was in a whimsical mood.

Yes, I used an electric oven that draws power from a coal-fired plant north of Lawrence, so I did my bit to further change our climate. And yes, the heat pump was cooling the house. I'm sorry. I'll do the best I can to live modestly and conservatively (in the true sense of the word) and hope others are doing the same. At the same time I hope to live happily in the moment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

All for Money

I've seen it coming for years – capitalism's rococo period. Capitalism, I'm sorry to say, breeds greed and provides greed a fertile ground for growth. So long as cultures are guided by conscience and respect for fellow human beings, greed can be held at bay. Some of this country's greatest capitalists have also been its greatest benefactors. Capitalists today, perhaps excepting Bill and Melinda Gates, seem not to be filling the benefactor role. I think of them as radical capitalists, capitalists who have no regard for other human beings.

It's a matter of conscience, I believe. We, as a country, seem to have misplaced ours.

What radical capitalists need to understand is that in their greed they may destroy the markets on which they depend. If the general populace becomes so impoverished it cannot purchase the products entrepreneurs produce and capitalists invest in, the whole system will collapse. You cannot get blood out of a turnip.

In addition, radical capitalists exploit the earth's natural resources irresponsibly. Get at the resource in the cheapest way possible in order to maximize profits. Case in point: the BP oil spill.

I'm not sure what motivates greedy people. Have they no humility? Have they no compassion? Do they not comprehend their impact on the earth's livability? Have they no limits?

Capitalism is here to stay, no doubt, but can't we insist on a conscionable capitalism? Not through government regulations, but through an acknowledgment that we're all in this world together and that we owe each other something more than a pittance. We owe each other a sense of dignity. As for this earth, we owe it our very lives. The earth, above all, deserves our respect and gratitude.


Kansas is in its worst drought since 1953. Wildlife is suffering, as this photo attests.

Where is its mama?

After the fawn left I put a full bucket of water under a nearby tree. I hope the fawn finds it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Look It Up

Remember this book? I used to say that if I were being sent into exile and could take just one book, this would be the one.

You probably own a similar one. This dictionary was a 1991 replacement for the old one that fell apart. As evidenced by its shabby condition the new one had hard use for more than fifteen years. Then came the Internet and easy access to on-line dictionaries. Webster's sat on the shelf, gathering dust.

A couple of nights ago, eating dinner alone, I was thinking about the word "pedagogy" and wondering what it means precisely and how it relates to similar words such as "pedant." Our dining room is also our main library. I sat facing the bookcase that holds reference books and there was my old Webster's. I could have gotten up to retrieve my iPad, but instead reached for the dictionary.

Ah, the familiar heft, the thin, strong paper, the thumb notches. In a rush I felt again the old thrill of running my eye down the page looking for the word, being distracted by other words along the way, pausing to read their definitions. The noun "pebble," for example: "a small usu. rounded stone esp. when worn by the action of water."

I moved on to "ped-" where I was reminded that prefix means "child," from Greek. And there, running down the page in succession was the panoply of words having the "ped-" prefix. I went on to pedagogy, "the art, science, or profession of teaching," and to pedant, "one who parades his learning." Even pediatrician.

Similar, but different is the Latin "ped-," which means foot, giving us pedestrian and pedometer, but that's another story.

Just as I was ready to close the book another word caught my eye: pederast. The evening news had another story about the Penn State scandal and we were reminded again of the monstrous Jerry Sandusky. Here was the precise word to describe him. Pederast: "one that practices anal intercourse esp. with a boy."

What a rich experience this was compared to finding the definition of pedagogy on line. No more will I neglect this battered old book that has expanded my vocabulary and entertained me through the years.

If, like me, you are a logophile, I hope you will dust off your dictionary and experience again the riches it contains.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Old Dog Learns A New Trick

Lately everyone is talking about kale salad. My niece Holden, who is always on the cutting edge of food trends, has been making it for months. Her dad talks about how good it is. My friend Kathy has been making kale salad that includes edamame and garbanzo beans. I did a web search and found dozens of recipes.

There's every good reason to eat kale. It is rich in calcium (important for someone who has sworn off calcium supplements) and antioxidants. It can lower cholesterol and contains more vitamins than you can shake a stick at. Some of kale's nutrients are lost in the cooking process, so I decided to give kale salad a try.

I'm slow to adopt new recipes, preferring to stick with the tried and true. Most of the recipes for kale salad had too many ingredients for my taste. Being a lover of simple food, I wanted to try raw kale without a lot of other ingredients. I decided to make my favorite cole slaw using kale instead of cabbage. Why not? Both vegetables are members of the brassica family, along with broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Kale just happens to be the most nutritious of the lot.

First I removed the central stems of a bunch of kale. After stacking up the leaves I shredded them into fine strips, about 3/8 wide, as I would cabbage. Then I chopped the strips into even smaller pieces.

My usual cole slaw dressing is easy to make. This time I made it with fresh lemon juice instead of cider vinegar as a nod to many of the recipes I found on line. Tossed with the chopped kale it lends shine and variations to the beautiful green composition. (See my post "This One's For Grant-O," June 20, 2011 for a description of the dressing.)

Served with cold baked beans and a sliced tomato the kale slaw was delicious. Dennis said he prefers it to cooked kale. Kale lacks the crispness of cabbage but the taste is just as good.

It was just another simple supper, but upgraded. For me, cole slaw has been redefined. It's a new trick I look forward to performing again, but next time I may give the slaw a little crunch by adding toasted nuts or croutons. 

Monday, July 9, 2012


Last week seemed focused on finishing up. Much if not all of the local corn crop was finished. The intense heat and lack of rain ruined the plants before they could form ears.

Today this farmer is salvaging what he can, chopping the corn stalks for ensilage to feed his cattle next winter. The value of the ensilage is a pittance compared to the corn crop he could have harvested in a good year.

Also finished were the green beans in our garden. The beans were just beginning to bloom when the heat wave hit. They're goners now.

The heat wave, having done its damage, is finished, too. Two days ago the temperature was 106º when a strong wind rolled in, dropping the temperature 14º in fifteen minutes. Today 85º feels downright cool.

Finally, a good thing was finished: I completed the Corn Maiden mask that's been waiting for its corn silk for over a year.

Considering the failed corn crop, I probably should have made some tears rolling down her cheeks.

Friday, July 6, 2012

On A Hot Summer Day

It's 104º and this young red tailed hawk, who has been hanging around for a couple of days, decided to sit on the edge of the bird bath and dangle his feet in the water. (Photographed from the living room through a water-spotted window.)

Inside the artificially cooled house I was thinking about something light and cooling for supper. By nature, I think first of dessert – in this case, panna cotta to be served with blueberries. This is a very easy, delicious summer dessert.

Panna Cotta

1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
1 cup 2% milk, whole milk or half and half 
2 cups buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or lemon extract (optional)
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind (optional)

In a sauce pan combine the gelatin, sugar and milk. Heat gently until the gelatin and sugar have dissolved. Set aside to cool. Then add the buttermilk and flavoring, if used.

Pour into six custard cups and refrigerate until set. Serve with berries or sliced peaches.

There, isn't that a cool breeze on a hot summer day?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Act of Faith

It's an act of faith to plant seeds when the thermometer registers 102º, faith in the life force resting in the seed and faith that better days lie ahead. Today I forced myself to stir from a lethargic state and plant escarole, Chinese cabbage and radicchio seeds for a fall garden.

Of course I didn't sow the seeds in the blazing hot, dried-up garden. I planted them in plastic egg cartons saved from the long-ago days when we didn't have chickens.

These egg cartons are perfect seed incubators. They retain moisture and admit light – two essentials for germinating seeds. I put them in the laundry room, which is the only place in our house that gets  sunlight during the summer months. (Deep eaves prevent solar gain during the summer, but allow for solar gain when the sun goes south for the winter.)

As soon as the seeds germinate I will open the egg cartons to allow the seedlings to grow and to prevent damping off. Damping off is a fungus that destroys the stem of a seedling in an overly moist environment.

The seed starting medium has extra phosphorus to stimulate root growth. I will be able to see the white rootlets through the clear plastic. As soon as the seedlings develop their first true leaves I will transplant them into potting soil in styrofoam cups with holes punched in their bottoms. By mid-August they should be ready to set into garden soil. They will need to be acclimated first by gradual exposure to outdoor temperatures and sunlight.

Our climate is changing, no doubt about that. Summers are hotter and drier. The traditional summer garden in Kansas may soon become nothing but a memory. We will have to adapt our gardening to meet these conditions. We will have spring and fall gardens, as well as winter gardens in cold frames. That's the reality we face.

I have faith we can succeed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Moth Festival Revisited

The day after I posted "Moth Festival Ends in Tragedy," a couple of late-comers showed up, apparently having emerged from their chrysalises too late. The beautiful leopard moth was one.

Another was a guy I called Red Head, who snuggled up to the sole remaining Brainless.

The next day, not one moth showed up at our front door, and no moths at all have visited since then.

Hey, guys, I was just kidding around about the moth festival ending. I didn't mean to scare you away. Please come back. I miss you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

We're Burning Up Here

Paradise seems less like Paradise than its antithesis. I've lost track of the number of days the temperature has soared over 100º. People, animals, plants and chickens have settled into deep lethargy.

The grass seed we planted and nurtured through the spring appears to be dead.

The leaves of my beloved hostas are drying and curling up.

In the garden, only the sweet potatoes, which love hot, dry weather, are thriving. Peppers aren't growing and the green beans have dried up. The few tomatoes that ripen are spoiled by blossom end rot.

Nearby corn fields are showing signs of firing, which means the plants, stressed by heat and lack of water, are withering from the bottom up.

Really, there's little to cheer us, except perhaps the nice crop of onions and shallots drying in the snake room.

Only the crows seem to be having a good time. A family of five has taken up residence in the yard, attracted by the last of summer apples. The crows entertain themselves by picking apples and carrying them to the bird bath, where they drop the apples into the water. Then they pick up the apples and fly off to consume them. I haven't succeeded in capturing that antic in a photo, but I did catch one scene involving a crow and what appears to be a grape it had ritualistically dunked in the water.

Aside from crow entertainment, I've chosen the distraction of reading some mystery novels by Jon Talton. These stories are set in Phoenix, one of the few places in the country hotter than eastern Kansas right now. Somehow they make me feel better.