07/10/18

The Pie that Wasn't

Awanthi Vardaraj

My grandmother was an amazing cook who could turn her hand to almost anything, provided it fell under the broad traditional cooking umbrella that she felt inherently comfortable and familiar with. She possessed the unique ability to combine flavours with ease, and her experiments were usually successes, which is saying a lot for the woman who came up with 'spaghetti korma' and 'biriyani casserole'. (A korma is a coconut-based gravy to which you add vegetables, meat, or paneer, but certainly not spaghetti, and a biriyani is a fragrant rice dish which is a perfect combination of spices, meats or vegetables, and basmati rice, but not in casserole form, both of which I will leave to your imagination.) However, and to her unending regret, she was a complete novice when it came to baking and 'western dishes'; she never let this get in the way of fresh experiments.

I was never a fussy eater as a child, and it fell to my lot to try her various experiments. There were cakes as heavy as saucepan lids that could have taken the place of frisbees any day; then there were the cakes that were so soft as to collapse into crumbling yellow mounds as soon as they were unmoulded, like a diva who has just been informed that she had just given her last performance. There were biscuits that both looked and felt like hockey pucks that no sane person would ever bite into, although I discovered that if you dunked the hockey puck into a glass of warm milk (too disgusting to drink, but admirable as a means of softening stubborn discs that just had to be eaten no matter what) they were not only biteable but also chewable. I chewed my way through all of her baking failures, and rejected nothing. There were cakes that tasted of baking powder; dry biscuits with dreadful bits of burned raisins and sharp shards of nuts that suddenly appeared in one's mouth, leading to dreadful coughing fits; puddings that stubbornly refused to leave the moulds they were steamed in, leading to the necessity of spooning them out into one's mouth straight from the moulds, and assorted other baking failures. To me, they were all glorious. Besides, I had discovered that nobody else wanted them, which only meant that there was more for me.

One day my grandmother announced, with infinite grandness, that she was going to bake a pie. I was thrilled. It would be perfect, she said, because she had found a no-fail recipe in a magazine and not only that, someone she knew had baked it perfectly. The person she was alluding to was an acquaintance of hers whose cooking and baking skills my grandmother held in withering scorn. The implication was that if this other woman could master this pie, my grandmother would undoubtedly ace it.

She stalked into the cavernous kitchen and I followed her in; to this day I have never seen the equivalent of that kitchen. With its cool stone walls, cobbled floor, enormous counters, and a sink that was large enough to bathe two very big dogs in (at the same time) it was the kitchen I was used to. My grandparents lived in a large rambling old house with considerable grounds and I never thought twice about my childhood; like most children I assumed that everyone lived the same way that we did, and it was only when I travelled in my late teens that I realised most kitchens were considerably smaller. The first time I did my dishes at a tiny compact sink that was barely big enough to accommodate a pan or two was the first time that I truly appreciated that kitchen of my childhood. But all that was to come later. For now, there was a pie that needed baking.

for the pie, or not .....

It was an apple pie and I was set the task of coring and peeling the apples; I was too small to slice the apples and I couldn't be trusted with the knife. This was before the days of childproof plastic knives; the knives we had were the real deal, and I might have done myself an injury. So the slicing of the apples was left to my grandmother, or to the servants. But I watched as she carefully measured flour to which she added butter, sugar, and a smidgen of salt, and then timed herself as she mixed the dough by hand. It was a warm day, although it was cool in the kitchen, and the shortcrust pastry was stubborn; she tried her hardest to roll it out, but it refused to cooperate with her efforts, constantly crumbling at the slightest touch. In the end, glaring at it with fierce concentration, she patted it into the prepared pie tin and popped it into the oven.

The apples had been sliced by then and dropped into a pan of cold water with a tablespoonful of yoghurt to keep them company; I knew this was to stop the apples from going brown, and I watched the clock as impatiently as I watched the large oven. My grandmother had set the timer on the oven and it whirred and clicked its way down even as the kitchen began to fill with the unmistakable scent of butter and flour; it smelled delicious. Finally, there was a loud ding as the timer finished its revolution, announcing that the pie crust was ready. I watched excitedly as she pulled the pie tin out of the oven and tried to edge around her to look at it. To my surprise she held the tin up, and out of my reach. I protested at this shabby treatment; was I not her partner? Had I not helped? I demanded that she show me the golden delicious fruits of our labour which the kitchen was pleasantly scented with, but she refused. I glanced at the picture of the finished pie in the clipping and then looked back at her, demanding to know if she had burned it. I didn't think she had; it didn't smell burned, but you never knew. She vociferously protested that she hadn't, and informed me that the pie would have to rest for a while before it would be ready. Ignoring my protests, she carted it away into the larder, which was located off the kitchen, and then returned without it.

I had no choice but to wait until the pie was rested; I approached her that evening to ask her if the pie had sufficiently rested enough. The entire family was in her sitting room, where we usually were in the evenings, and she gazed slightly shiftily around at my question. Shushing me, she demanded to know if I'd done my homework. Aghast at this treachery, I sat down at my little desk, placed my head upon my hands (which was the usual attitude with which I tackled homework), and ceased to bother her. That had been her objective all along and she managed it magnificently.

Unfortunately for my grandmother, she never considered for a second that I could be a lot more stubborn than she was. I tackled her repeatedly over the coming week about that pie, and was met with resistance and an excuse each time. Her excuses got wilder and wilder, and even though I was little, even I knew that the pie didn't need to wait until it had stopped raining, or that she was exaggerating when she said that there was ‘no time to bake it that day’ when the day stretched before us invitingly, or even her bizarre excuse one day that it was Saturday and not the 'right day' to bake that pie. One day she even told me that there were no more apples (the ones we'd prepared for the pie were long gone) and I impatiently told her to put jam in it. I'd eaten jam tarts from the bakery recently, and I told her excitedly that we could make a huge jam tart. I informed her that we could call it a jam pie.

"There's no jam in the house", said my grandmother triumphantly.

I stared at her open-mouthed; I had eaten jam on toast for breakfast that morning. Before I could remind her of this fact of great import she had stalked off to the laundry room. I watched her leave as the Great Plan began to form in my mind.

The larder was larger than most rooms you'd associate the term with and had large netted cupboards alongside one wall; the other sides were occupied by open shelves, and there was a steep little staircase that led to a small underground room where extra pots and pans, old appliances, boxes, bottles, sacks, lanterns, and other paraphernalia were stored. It was almost always locked, but I knew where she kept the key. It was the work of a moment to purloin the key from its hiding place and tiptoe into the larder. It was Sunday afternoon, and all the adults were resting, so I didn’t need to tiptoe, but one always tiptoes when one is doing something one isn’t supposed to do. I stood in front of the netted cupboard where the baked goods were always kept and put my hand on the handle. I twisted it and the cupboard door opened towards me with a creak. The pie was covered in a cloche and residing towards the back of the cupboard. I reached out and pulled it towards me and lifted the cloche expectantly.

I had seen a picture in the book of what the pie crust was supposed to look like; it was supposed to take the shape of the pan it was in, with a nice hollow for the filling. This one, however, was as flat as a biscuit. There was no hollow, no delicious indentation waiting to be filled up. It was golden brown, but that was where the resemblance ended. I looked around at the larder door. I was still alone. I looked back at the pie. And then, because I just had to know, I poked an inquiring finger into the crust.

My finger went into the crust obligingly with very little effort. I was puzzled. But when I licked my finger I realised that whatever I was holding in my hands was delicious. It was buttery and soft, like the finest and most fragile shortbread biscuits in the world, and just sweet enough, with a hint of salt somewhere in the background. I’m not sure, but I think I said the word ‘wow’ out loud several times.

Of course, the ‘pie’ had to be eaten, and I carted it away with a spoon and a book to my favourite spot in my grandmother’s garden to do just that. I think that I would certainly add some honey or milk to the stash if I were going to eat it now, but I didn’t think to back then, and I certainly didn’t miss it. I enjoyed that afternoon in the garden, curled up under the mango tree with my feast and my book, and it’s one of my favourite childhood memories.

As I learned about baking when I got older I understood what my grandmother had forgotten to do with her pie. Instead of baking it blind to prepare it for the filling, she had baked the crust as it was and so it had set the way it was, like a shortbread biscuit. The ironic thing is that she imagined that she had failed and had suffered another baking disaster, but she ended up baking the best thing she ever baked. It wasn’t the pie she’d set out to bake, but it remains, to this day, the best shortbread biscuit I’ve ever eaten in my life.

My grandmother is quite old now, and isn’t always herself, but once in a while she will congratulate herself for my baking prowess. ‘I taught you all you know’, she said to me recently. I smiled. ‘Yes, you did, ammamma’, I replied.

the writer and her grandmother

Credits

Name Role
Awanthi Vardaraj writer