Regular readers know that I am an avid home cook and food writer -- but they may not know that I came to my calling late in life. I spent little time in the kitchen during my childhood and taught myself to cook from cookbooks, and with some tips from my sister, out of sheer necessity in my 20s (basically, I needed to eat). When I read memoirs from other food writers or hear their stories of learning to cook at a young age from a loving, patient grandmother, I can't relate. Although I grew up in a large Italian family that loved to eat, we did so neither reverentially nor adventurously. Family dinners were simply what happened at six o'clock every evening, rather than a celebration of food or culture.
With five children and a full-time job, my mother viewed cooking as a chore, another task that needed doing each busy day. For her, baking a cake meant opening a box of Duncan Hines, and the microwave was her go-to tool in the kitchen. Understandably, special meals were reserved for holidays.
Yet my father adored food.
Again, he did not love food adventurously. A good steak, steamed lobster with lots of butter and anything that sported a heavy cream sauce were among his all-time favorites. But food played a starring role in his life. Whenever he told stories about places or people, they were ultimately about food – the food served at a memorable event, a special dish from a favorite restaurant, his teenaged job termination based on his preference for dipping into the restaurant's ice cream freezer rather than the dishwater.
A big man with a big appetite, my father enjoyed a long career in law enforcement. My siblings and I used to beg him to tell us stories about his time as a police officer in the 1960s in New York City. We expected and hoped for stories about dramatic arrests, exciting foot chases, puzzling unsolved cases: instead we heard stories about which delis had the best pastrami sandwiches and which restaurants the officers loved because they could count on getting a complimentary meal.
|My dad, circa 1973, after leaving NYC for New England (one of my favorite pictures)|
While a keen eater, my father was not a cook. A very traditional man, he viewed cooking largely as women's work. But he did venture into the kitchen for fun sometimes and even had a few “specialties,” primarily because they were things he enjoyed eating: Spanish omelettes, fried bologna sandwiches and pizza (he made a hand-tossed, New York-style pizza that is still the best I have ever eaten). And, bizarrely, prune and apricot pie, which he made during the holidays.
It was a bit of an oddity as a pie and, possibly just because it had prunes in it, didn't appeal to his brood of children – except me, but, according to my sister, I preferred “weird food" as a kid: I loved lima beans, eschewed cake icing and refused to put milk in my cereal. The Pie, as I will always think of it, was one of the few bonds that my father and I shared – that and his willingness to eat all the rejected edge crusts from my slices of pizza (a task happily taken on now by Mr. Ninj).
As I grew into adulthood, I'll be honest: I didn't have much of a relationship with my father. He was an often judgmental person who frequently found fault in his children and had difficulty showing or expressing affection. We had little in common and never seemed have much to say to each other.
My father died two years ago.
Last Christmas, I thought of The Pie. I had nearly forgotten about it but realized that if I was ever going to eat it again, now that my dad had passed, I would have to bake it myself. So I asked my mother for my father's recipe, expecting her to copy it out and email it to me. Instead, she offered to give me his handwritten recipe.
What my mother actually gave me was not just The Pie recipe but my father's “recipe box.” In reality, it was more like his recipe wish list. The plastic box was full of recipes, some he tore from newspapers and magazines and others he transcribed from the television cooking shows he liked to watch. Many of these hand-written recipes are nearly illegible, as his dexterity began to fail him. But these were all dishes that excited my father, dishes that he clearly wanted to eat.
As it turns out, many of them were things that were also on my own to-cook list, things that excited me and that I wanted to eat. Not only The Pie, but also things like panettone, which my parents always bought at Christmas time and my mother told me my father had always wanted to try making himself. That, in turn, caused me to recall his passion for making jam and pickles, something I also enjoy now.
That box helped me realize, without sadness or regret, that I probably had more things in common with my father than I thought. I'm happy to have his recipe wish list and will continue to make some variation of those recipes – and think of him when I do.
Today is my father's birthday.
In honor of that and because it was a holiday tradition, I'm sharing The Pie recipe with you. Of course, being The Ninj, I couldn't leave it alone: I made a homemade crust, added some spices and turned it into hand pies, making it more of a grab-and-go snack that a formal dessert. 'Cause that's how I roll.
And I have no doubt my father would loudly disapprove of my messing with the recipe -- while he ate every last hand pie.
Dried Plum and Apricot Hand Pies
-- for the crust --
1 1/4 cups flour
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons cold vodka (or ice water)
-- for the filling --
1 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots
1 cup coarsely chopped pitted dried plums (OK, they're prunes)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon water
Put the flour, butter, sugar and salt in a food processor. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Add 3 tablespoons vodka (or ice water) and process until it all comes together into a dough ball (add the last tablespoon of vodka if it isn't coming together well). Shape the dough into a 1-inch thick round, wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for one hour.
While the dough chills, combine the apricots and plums in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring frequently (you can add more water if it starts to get too dry). Stir in the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes or until the fruit is very tender (it will have a jammy consistency). Remove from heat and cool.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and water to make a wash. Set aside.
Roll the dough out on a very lightly floured work surface to a thickness of about 1/8". Using a 4-inch round cookie cutter, cut out as many circles as the dough will make (re-roll as necessary). Add a tablespoon or two of fruit filling to the center of each circle. Using your finger, rub a little egg wash along one side edge of the circle (to help seal) and then carefully fold the dough over the filling, pressing the edge lightly to seal. Use a fork to crimp and completely seal each edge. Pierce each hand pie with a fork several times (to allow the steam to escape), brush with egg wash and set on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden and flaky. Cool on a wire rack.