Saturday, March 19, 2016

Berry Pies and Starry Skies

Warm greetings to you all!

I hope everyone is having a slow, lazy Saturday. I don't know how the weather is where you are, but it's been raining here in Oregon for the past week and a half with little to no sign of stopping. Saturday morning, rain, Beethoven and Motown spinning on the record player... In my mind, that's a morning that spells out baking and books.

Today, my house was filled with the aromas of butter pie dough, caramelized brown sugar, and tart berries. Pies have a sacred spot in my heart. Pecan pie is my favorite, because I was never really fond of cooked fruit. But give me a single-serving portable berry pie, and you can bet your sugar I'm going to eat the whole thing. And all of the rest. Ever tried to take a slice of fruit pie on the go? I wouldn't recommend it. Kinda messy.

This recipe is a favorite of mine. These pies are just like taking a slice of pie with you, without running the risk of ending up with red and purple berry juice on your shirt. I even put these in the case at work, because they're so versatile. Don't like berries? Add 1/2 teaspoon more cinnamon and use apples instead! Are you like me and don't really prefer cooked fruit in general? No worries. Use a pecan pie filling recipe instead (I've done this before. Never had a batch of pies disappear so fast).

They also come together so quickly. The pie crust gets either cut by hand or in a food processor and rolled out. While it chills in the fridge for a bit, the filling gets tossed together in seconds.  I usually use a 5-6 inch circle cutter for my pies, but feel free to switch it up. Baking time will vary with size, though. After pie dough is cut, each half of a circle will get a heaping spoonful of filling until it is divided evenly.
These are berries I pulled from my freezer: huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Beat an egg, brush it over the edges and fold the empty half of the circle over the filling, and crimp the edges with a fork to seal. Egg wash the tops and sprinkle a little bit of sugar over the pies, if desired. Part of the beauty of these is the juices spilling out while baking (better on the baking sheet than on your shirt!), so the pies get vented with a couple of small slits in the top of the dough with a knife. I like to use a small fluted cookie cutter so I can really see the filling, so if you have a shaped cookie cutter, get creative! 

In the time it takes your oven to preheat, these bad boys will be ready to bake. 
And, as so many in the industry will tell you, the hardest part is waiting for goodies to cool.

Good thing I have a lot of books to pass the time. Let's talk about Robert Louis Stevenson.

Or rather, his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne-Stevenson. Because in Nancy Horan's Under The Wide and Starry Sky, this is her story. As history goes, Robert Louis Stevenson met Fanny at an artist colony in France after she had separated from her unfaithful husband in America. Fanny relocated herself and her children for a life reset, to find happiness for herself and to find an art institute at which she and her daughter Isobel (Belle) could study painting. After the death of one of her sons, she moves to the country and meets Louis Stevenson (R.L.S. as we know him), an author and artist.

So begins a rather typical tale of blossoming love and a pleasant marriage, right? Nah. Fanny isn't exactly taken by R.L.S. at first. Being an author herself, she became more of a constructive sparring partner before they finally married and travelled around the globe. Horan expertly details this difficult yet rewarding relationship.

The novel is a bit drawn out, but that's the writing style I tend to gravitate towards (Tolkien, Helprin, Tan, Doyle, etc.). If you have trouble getting through a book, it will be a challenge to finish this 400+ pager, but it's worth it.

Normally, I shy away from historical fiction related to wives/lovers of famous men. I find them to be over-romanticized. Chick lit is not really my thing; successful or dramatically tragic relationships are not usually fun to read. For me, anyway. I understand and appreciate the appeal of love stories, but I prefer them tastefully told.

Horan's story is tastefully told. Fanny and R.L.S. didn't have a perfect relationship (I have yet to meet anyone who does), but their quarrels and trials are punctuated by gestures of loving support, honesty, and growth. Fanny never had the opportunity to reach her full potential in art or writing while she cared for Stevenson in his fragile health and encouraged his writing career. This is the sort of historical fiction that I love to read--the facts are all straight, the story is well-researched and accurate, the characters are true to their real-life counterparts. And yet, she manages to bring more life to these figures, exploring their personalities and qualities.

This isn't just a story about a famous author and his imperfect yet loving relationship, though.  Horan uses Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson to analyze loss, the healing power of art (and writing), and the exhilaration of adventure.  There are moments in this book at which you want to stop and breathe, relishing in the breath in your lungs, the rain outside, and the blinking stars in the sky. Let me sound cheesy,  but there are always those moments when you're so thankful for the small, beautiful things in life. Any author that promotes those feelings with words alone is worth reading.

Have you read this book? What did you think? If not, what are you reading? What are you baking/cooking? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!
Until next time,

Berry Hand Pies
Yield: Approx. 6-8 hand pies
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup (two sticks) of chilled butter, cut into chunks
2 1/2 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
5-6 tbsp ice water

2 cups of berries/apples
1 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt

An egg, beaten, for egg wash
Sprinkling sugar, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 425ºF.
2. For the crust, toss together all dry ingredients with the butter. Pulse in a food processor until crumbly (or use a fork or pastry cutter by hand). Slowly add in a tablespoon of water at a time until the mixture can hold together and forms a cohesive mass.
3. Roll out to desired thickness. I usually work mine out to approximately 4-5 mm. Place rolled out dough in the refrigerator to chill.
4. For the filling, toss together all ingredient until combined. If you decide to use frozen berries, make sure you let them thaw in the refrigerator beforehand, or your filling will be too watery.
5. Use your desired size circle cutter  to cut out  as many pies as you can. Spoon the filling onto one half of each circle of dough, until the filling is divided evenly. If you are using a cookie cutter to vent, cut the shapes out of the other halves of the circles.
6. Brush edges with beaten egg, and fold over the circles to form the half circular moon pies. Crimp edges with a fork to seal. If venting with a knife, make slits in the tops of the pies. Egg wash the tops of the pies, sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
7. Bake at 425ºF for 10 minutes, then rotate the pies and reduce heat to 375ºF. Bake for a remaining 10 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
8. Enjoy!

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