Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Strawberry Day

Today was a strawberry day.

Early this morning, Andrew and I went out to pick up two very large crates of strawberries from Andrew’s mother’s strawberry supplier and bring them home. Andrew’s mother insists that her strawberry supplier is able to obtain the finest strawberries in the Twin Cities and that no one else can match him.

The primary purpose of the strawberries was to turn them into strawberry pies.

Andrew’s mother makes a strawberry pie that is divine. It took her over twenty years to perfect her recipe, but she insists that her recipe can no longer be improved upon—and she is right. It is a strawberry pie unlike any other.

The secret, she says, is selecting JUST the right strawberries, JUST the right amounts and blends of sweeteners, and JUST the right bonding ingredients, all of which are very tricky to get precisely right. However, since 1994, she has had the recipe right where she wants it, and she has not altered it one iota for fifteen years.

Andrew’s mother makes strawberry pies only once a year—the pies are too much trouble to fiddle with on a more frequent basis—but when she is in the mood to make strawberry pies, everyone takes notice. This is because her strawberry pies are magnificent and beyond compare.

She is very, very particular about the strawberries that go into her pies.

Small strawberries get set aside. Small strawberries must go into jam, not pies, or so she insists.

The very largest strawberries also get set aside. Large strawberries, she says, must be eaten as pure fruit, in a bowl with sugar and cream.

It is mid-sized strawberries that are best for strawberry pies, according to her rules.

However, strawberries for pies must be not only mid-sized, they must also be fully ripened (but not over-ripened). They must have a consistency of firmness and texture—which she insists translates into a consistency of flavor and sweetness—that makes them indistinguishable, one from another, in an individual pie (which apparently is the point).

When Andrew and I arrived home with the strawberries, the first thing Andrew’s mother did was personally sort the strawberries. Small strawberries were set aside and placed in the refrigerator. Large strawberries were set aside and placed in the refrigerator.

After this first round of sorting was completed, Andrew’s mother did a second round of examination. Each strawberry was checked for firmness and ripeness, and only about half of the remaining strawberries were deemed “useful” for pies after this second cut.

After this second sorting, Andrew’s mother put all of the strawberries into the refrigerator, and Andrew and I were instructed to get to work.

Andrew and I were assigned the task of preparing the largest strawberries—those Andrew’s mother had deemed useful only for eating with sugar and cream in a bowl.

Andrew and I were told exactly how to wash and de-stem the large strawberries, we were told exactly how to slice the large strawberries (which must be sliced in a very particular way—and with the very sharpest of knives so that the strawberries do not “bruise”) and we were told exactly how to package the large strawberries (some of which were to be stored in the refrigerator for a few days, but some of which were to be stored “for up to two weeks, but no more than two weeks” in the freezer).

When Andrew and I were done with the large strawberries, we were given the task of dealing with the small strawberries intended for jam.

We were told exactly how to wash and de-stem the small strawberries and we were shown exactly how to look for imperfections in the strawberries and how to remove them. (The strawberries for jam were to remain whole.)

While we were working first on the large and then on the small strawberries, Andrew’s mother was preparing nine pie crusts (of all the strawberries we brought home, there were only enough “useful” strawberries for nine pies, or so she judged).

Andrew’s mother is so serious about her strawberry pies that she uses a unique piecrust solely for strawberry pies. It is a crust completely different from her other piecrusts. It is thicker and heavier, and baked differently, and provides what she says is the ideal foundation for her strawberry filling.

While the crusts were baking, Andrew’s mother did her third and final sorting of the strawberries intended for the pies. She divided them into nine groups, matching them for color, texture, size and firmness. Each pie was to have its own particular selection of strawberries.

It was only at this point that she washed and stemmed the pie strawberries herself, and sliced them according to her exacting specifications. When her pie strawberries met her satisfaction, she put the strawberries in the refrigerator and set to work on the filling.

The filling is very complicated, because she makes it in four different steps. After each step in the process, the filling must be cooled to room temperature before the next step begins.

I have always been surprised by some of the ingredients that go into the pie filling. Cream of tartar is used in one of the steps. Fresh lemon juice is used in one of the steps (and NO hint of lemon may be discerned in the final result—the lemon is present in order to enhance the flavor of the strawberries). Cornstarch is used in one of the steps. A very small amount of unflavored gelatin is used in the final step, after which the filling is refrigerated for nine—and exactly nine—minutes, at which point the filling is poured over the strawberries, already nestled carefully in their pie shells.

If this is done correctly—and it WAS done correctly—there is no seepage of strawberry filling into the piecrusts.

Only at this point were the pies done, and placed in the refrigerator in order for the filling to reach the desired consistency.

While the pies were in the refrigerator, all three of us attended to the mid-sized strawberries that had been deemed “not good enough” for the pies.

These strawberries were washed and stemmed, and sliced, and coated in sugar, and then packaged and frozen “for future use”. I think that “future use” means accompaniment for ice cream.

By the time all this was done, it was 3:30 p.m.—and Andrew and I had further work to do.

Andrew’s mother kept two strawberry pies at home, but the other seven pies were to be delivered to friends and family members—and Andrew and I were to be the deliverymen.

We had seven stops to make, no one of which was far from home. However, we wanted to get the seven deliveries accomplished in two hours or less, because we wanted to be back home by 5:30 p.m., when Andrew’s father would be home from work—and Alex, too, since he was joining us for dinner again.

Andrew’s mother had not told anyone in advance about the pies—after all, she had had no idea how many strawberries might be “useful” and how many pies might result—and Andrew and I were under strict instructions with regard to the order of our deliveries and what to do if no one was at home at a given house (“ move on, and move down the list”). There were ten names on the list, three more than there were pies, and the extra names were necessary in the event that people were out for the afternoon and, as a result, had to be passed over. (One may hardly leave, unannounced, a strawberry pie upon someone’s doorstep in the summer months.)

Happily, everyone on the list was at home, so Andrew and I had to make only seven stops. We had to limit ourselves to ten minutes of visiting at each house, which the pie recipients kindly understood, knowing that there were other pies to be delivered in addition to their own.

The seventh and last stop on our route was Alec and Lizbeth’s house, where we dropped off their dessert for the evening. We saw the kids for a few minutes, but we were not able to stay for long.

We made it back home by 5:35 p.m., right about the time we intended.

And our dessert tonight WAS strawberry pie.

The pies were perfection. Each of us ate two pieces (and sent the remainder home with Alex).

The main course tonight was pot roast, served with mashed potatoes, green beans, parsnips, red cabbage and Andrew’s mother’s special version of Waldorf salad.

While Andrew and I washed and dried the dishes, Andrew’s mother announced that she was going to make jam with the small strawberries Andrew and I had prepared this morning.

When she said that she was going to make the jam tonight, I was flabbergasted. I remember my grandmother making strawberry jam when I was a child, and it was a complicated, multi-hour project, and I mentioned this.

“That’s because she was making preserves, designed to last for up to a year, which is far more difficult than what I am about to do. I am going to make a simple fresh jam, nothing more, which must be used within a week” was the response I received.

And Andrew and I watched his mother prepare the jam while we continued to wash and dry the dishes.

It was not an arduous process, largely because the strawberries themselves had already been prepared this morning. The strawberries had to be cooked with sweeteners and bonding agents, but the process was nothing like what I had observed my grandmother do many years ago. In comparison to my grandmother’s preserves, the jam tonight was a snap.

Andrew’s mother made enough jam to fill fifteen jars—and she has already compiled her list of jam recipients. One jar will stay home, one jar went home tonight with Alex, and in the morning Andrew and I will take one jar over to Alec and Lizbeth’s, where we plan to take care of Alec’s lawn tomorrow so that he will not have to worry about lawn work this coming weekend.

Andrew’s mother plans to deliver the other twelve containers herself, and she plans to do so tomorrow.

She said it may take all morning.

The fresh jam will go to people who did not get strawberry pie today.

I hope they don’t feel cheated.

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