Tuesday, February 16, 2010


ph: via life

There's a French expression "Il faut mettre la main à la pâte" which means "It is necessary to put your hands in the dough" or loosely translated, "hands-on experience is everything." For the better part of the last year I've been writing a novel. And even though there were times I despaired ever finishing it I'm now at the home stretch, racing for the finish line. The words are flying onto the page faster than I can type them, and I can't begin to describe the elation, the giddiness, the utter glee that finds me mentally jumping up and down for joy. There's a huge sense of both relief and accomplishment wrapped up inside me. There were moments when I felt I'd mistakenly put my whole life on hold, all in expectation of this one book. Some days in my bones I knew it was the right decision, on other days I berated myself on the foolishness of such a task. But I now realize that every waking hour, every unrealized dream was striving for this one moment. I'm not claiming to have written the great novel, American or otherwise, but that was never the goal. Rather it was giving in to a feverish dream, the prodding, pressing, insatiable and unrelenting fervor and compulsion to set pen to paper, even if it left me singed from trying to fly too close to the sun. Because that's what writing means to me. So tightly interwoven into my psyche that it's impossible to distinguish heart from craft. Writing is both affliction and balm, disabling when I'm unable to express myself, and a salve when nothing else will do.

ph: via frolic

When friends and family ask me what type of book I'm writing I think they're surprised by my answer. Because I've in fact written a book for teens and young adults. Not such a stretch if you consider that I've worked in mostly kids entertainment the last several years. I find kids of all ages fascinating not just in their natural exuberance for life, but their unique view of the situations they're forced to contend with. A rapidly changing world dominated by technology, media, and blatant sexuality. In such a hurry to grow up they sometimes forget to be young. Being a kid seemed so different in my youth, my days filled with curiosity, adventure, and daring. When happiness could be found in the bottom of a jar filled with fireflies, chasing down ice cream trucks, or pitching a tent in your own backyard under the brilliant stars. However, I do admit that before last year I never imagined I'd be writing a novel for teens. But when I grasped onto a seedling of an idea I knew that it was the perfect choice for my first book. Getting started was the hardest part, and I find that sometimes the beginning is not always the best place to start a story. At times the middle beckons with such sweet promise. Like skipping stones, it starts a ripple of ideas that reach like greedy fingers for each new tidbit or morsel, too many to limit yourself to just one. And still others start from the end, working their way backwards as they meticulously weed through the tangle that would trap them in immobility. But once you figure out your starting point, then its all the other stuff that bogs you down, self-doubt, writer's block, distractions, over-earnest criticisms, they run the gamut and every writer suffers these maladies. The true test is in being able to work through it all, the ability to keep a your eye on the prize. Even if the prize becomes somewhat murky during the long frustrating process.

Before I began this book someone suggested I read Stephen King's On Writing. It was a wonderful book that was part memoir and part textbook for the beginning writer. It offered a practical view on the writer's craft from the basic tools every writer needed to plot and character development, as well as commonsense advice on how to structure your day. It was funny, perceptive, and inspiring. But what stood out the most for me was the time-frame in which he cranked out a novel - 10 pages a day, 3 months tops start to finish. He made it sound so simple, as if any fool could do it. I took it somewhat as a personal challenge. And felt that if I failed, then I simply wasn't meant to be a writer. It sounds ridiculous now. I mean if we all had the gumption and discipline to write an entire novel, then we all would. But that's not the case. And I had to remind myself during those long periods when I had absolutely nothing to write that this is part of the process. Learning to work through it despite your insecurities, being willing to show up and just stare at the blank screen even if all you do is contribute a single sentence revised a hundred times. The other thing that stuck with me was that King despises adverbs. Whenever I found myself using an adverb I felt a surge of guilt and the undeniable urge to look over my shoulder lest he strike me down. Sure the gratuitous use of adverbs can be tiresome for the reader, but I've always been particularly interested in the how? of things and nothing quite does that than the descriptive modifier.

My friend Brian sent me a link to Pie in a Jar at ourbestbites. Sheer genius. Little individual-sized pies made in half-pint canning jars. To get started you'll need to get some 1/2-pint wide mouth canning (or mason) jars. You can sometimes find them at hardware stores, but they're available online. I found some at the canningpantry. Make sure you wash the jars in hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly before use.

Just follow these little steps for little pies:

Step 1: Pie Dough
You'll need 1 recipe for a single-crust 9-inch pastry dough. This will make 4 jars. In a pinch, store bought crust will do.

Step 2: Make a topper and line the jar
Roll out a small amount of dough for the tops of your pies. Using the ring part of your jar as a cookie cutter, cut out 4 tops and set aside. Use the rest of the dough to line the jars. No rolling is required, just press pieces of dough into the jars until you reach the lip of the jar.

Step 3: Fill 'er up
You'll need about 1/2 cup of filling for each jar. Type of filling is the pie-maker's choice. Canned prepared pie fillings whether store-bought or home-made require no additional steps - simply pour the filling into the pie crust and bake. However, making your own fillings, fruit or cream, require a few additional steps. Divide filling between the jars and dot a pat of butter on top.

Basic Fruit Filling
4 cups fruit (peeled, pitted, diced)
1/4 - 1/2 cup sugar
3 tbsp of cornstarch=3 tbsp instant ClearJel, or 1/3 cup flour, or 1/4 cup tapioca flour
2 tbsp of butter
spices/ flavoring such as cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, citrus zest, lemon juice, etc.

*see additional notes on juicy fruits & thickeners below

Step 4: Top it off
Make sure your "lid" or pie top crust has a vent so steam can escape. You can use the tip of a knife to make a couple of slits or a tiny cookie cutter for a more decorative vent. When the top is ready, slip it onto the top of the pie. It will be large enough that the outside edge goes up the side of the dough-covered jar a bit. Use your finger, or a fork, to press the 2 pieces of dough together to seal. If you prefer, you can also do a lattice topping. Another option is a crumb topping.

Crumb Topping
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 tbsp oats
1/4 tbsp cinnamon
3 tbsp cold butter

Combine sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Cut in butter. Add oats and stir to combine.

Step 5: Freeze 'em
When the pies are all done and topped, place metal lid back on and seal them tight. Then pop these little cuties in the freezer. Whenever you have a craving for home-baked goodness, just grab one from the freezer, and bake.

Step 6: Bake 'em
These canning jars were made to withstand boiling, pressure cooking, and intense heat. They won't break while baking, but if you're concerned just pop off the lid, and stick the jar in a cold oven. Then turn the oven to 375° F. This will give the frozen jar a chance to warm up slowly as the oven preheats. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the middle bubbly. If baking fresh, not frozen, bake for 45 minutes.

Additional Notes on Juicy Fruit & Thickeners:
Juicy fruit require some type of thickener so the liquid from the fruit when baked gels, otherwise you'll have a puddle of juice. Typical thickeners for fruit pies include flour, cornstarch, tapioca, or arrowroot. The amount needed varies with the kind of fruit and the quantity of sugar used. The sweeter the fruit the less sugar it requires. Certain thickeners work best with certain types of fruit. In general, fruit fillings thickened with arrowroot and tapioca are clear and bright in appearance, and the flavor of the fruit comes through clearly. However, when making a lattice-top, or open crust pie, the tapioca on top of the fruit baked into hard bits. I recommend using potato starch or ClearJel® instead. ClearJel which can be purchased in supermarkets makes a fruit filling that's clear, has no floury or starch taste, is freezer-stable, and is simple to use. Unlike cornstarch, you don't have to precook the fruit in it. Simply whisk together ClearJel and sugar, then sprinkle in mixture over fruit.

Flour is good when baking apple pies. The rule of thumb is about 1/3 cup of flour to each quart of fruit, but each recipe varies. As well as sprinkling the flour directly on the cut fruit, be sure to sprinkle an extra tablespoon on the bottom of the crust before pouring in the filling which help thicken the fruit juices that seep to the bottom when cooking.

Cornstarch has twice the thickening power of flour, but also imparts a slightly starchy taste. This is why you should precook a cup of the fruit with the cornstarch before baking the pie. The cornstarch will not work with fruit high in acidity (cherries) or if you plan to freeze the filling.

Quick-cooking (Pearl) Tapioca is often used as thickener because it can hold more fruit juices than other thickeners without becoming rigid. However, it's not recommended for lattice or open crust pies as it remains hard when exposed to the hot air of the oven. Let the filling mixture stand for at least 15 minutes before spooning into the pie crust. This allows for more efficient thickening. Always mix the thickener with the sugar first to prevent lumps, then add fruit.

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