Friendships can start in the most esoteric of ways. Some friendships commence in early childhood; others – through mutual friends. Once, a cherry pitter led me to one of my best friends – Jennie.
I had accidentally ordered two cherry pitters, and when they arrived, I realized my mistake. Who needs two cherry pitters anyway? I tweeted about my accidental splurge, and Jennie tweeted back, with an offer to relieve me of such burden. After a few tweets, we agreed to meet for coffee. I brought the cherry pitter; she brought her award-winning tomato jam. By the end of our coffee date we both knew – our friendship was meant to be.
Unlike the friendship, which continues to this day, the tomato jam didn’t last a day in my presence. I ate it with a large spoon my parents had brought over from Russia – one of those mini-shovels, as my mother likes to call them. As Jennie and I grew to know one another better, we started our weekend tradition of Saturday farmers’ market mornings, a ritual we looked forward to and protected fiercely – that was our time. We would share our accomplishments and failures, our recipe ideas. I got to know her family: her husband, Mikey, whom she lovingly referred to as “The Mr”, and her beautiful daughters. Jennie and I often joked that we were each other’s adoptive sisters.
A few months ago, I was having a grey sort of day, and Jennie invited me over to bake hand pies – I can’t even recall the filling, I think it was strawberry-rhubarb, but I remember flecks of lemon thyme in the crust. It was just the kind of therapy I needed. She made the dough while I made the filling. We laughed over coffee and warm pie while Virginia, Jennie’s younger daughter, ran around the apartment.
About a week and a half ago, Jennie’s husband Mikey, unexpectedly passed away. He had a heart attack, and in a flash – he was gone. None of it makes sense to anyone; the whole thing seems absurd, unfair, infuriatingly poorly orchestrated. At his memorial service, one of Mikey’s friends observed that were his death a movie script, Mikey would have said that the ending was a cheap shot, a cop-out, a sham. According to the laws of good writing, it seems a grossly unfair that one of the best, kindest, most throughtful people was forced to make such an exit. He deserved better, I think. Much better.
In the next few days, Jennie wrote a beautiful post on her blog. She asked her readers to help her healing process in making Mikey’s favorite pie – peanut butter. Hundreds, if not thousands, of posts followed and the food writing community united worldwide– in honor of Mikey. There was a special hash tag on Twitter. Danny Meyer put it on the menu at his restaurant. People who didn’t know Mikey or Jennie felt connected to it.
Jennie knows her way around the kitchen. She develops her recipes thoughtfully, deliberately, testing them many times over if need be. She has a process; she is innovative; her technique is honed. She glides effortlessly in her kitchen. The last time we cooked together, miraculously, multiple batches of dough were made in no time. She went into the garden and came back carrying something green in her hand. “Thyme?” I asked. “Lemon thyme,” she beamed, as she snipped the herb into the dough and in a single flash it was flecked with the tiny leaves – the prettiest dough I’ve seen.
For people like Jennie and myself, cooking can be therapy – it allows you to feel control over a situation that might be veering out of it. Standing alone in your kitchen, mincing garlic, kneading dough, stirring jam, is a meditative, thoughtful process. Being alone with your thoughts can be daunting, downright scary, but being alone with your thoughts in the kitchen can be cathartic. There is something about repetitive motions of food preparations, about the smells the emerge from the kitchen, about the visceral satisfaction of feeding those you love with what you have prepared – that allows for one day at a time to be, indeed, one day at a time.
I wanted to make a peanut butter pie in Mikey’s honor. And in the next couple of weeks, I will. But this pie here – this is for Jennie. Meeting Jennie was a lucky, beautiful fluke – something I’m grateful for each time I see her. Normally, I’m nervous to meet people I only know through their avatars. What if, in real life, they are polar opposites of what they appear online? What if the persona they project on their web is not who they are in the flesh? Believe me, it’s been known to happen.
But Jennie – she is, in the flesh, exactly who she portrays herself to be: warm, caring, thoughtful, sharp, witty, and entirely intolerant of bullshit. She doesn’t cook to prove her accomplishments – she cooks to show you her love. This pie is my way to her show her mine.
When I originally made this pie, inspired by Martha Stewart, in late July, I was inspired by Jennie’s lemon thyme crust. I had bought several pounds of fragrant, ripe peaches that either needed to be eaten right away or cooked. Some, I decided, were destined for pie. I pulled out my ingredients for the dough, but found that I only had regular thyme on hand. In it went – the dough chilled while I worked on the filling and the streusel.
This is a pie best eaten at room temperature, and, if you can allow such a thing, tastes better the following day, when the flavors meld together. It’s surprisingly reserved on sweetness – in other words, this is a grown-up pie, restrained, but not restricted. It lets the peaches be themselves. The crème fraiche turns into a sort of a custard that gently hugs the peaches all around. And that little herbal hint of thyme lingers on your tongue after the buttery sweetness of the crust is gone, like a faint perfume when someone leaves the room. Oh, that that lovely pie dish – remember how I recommended Simon Pearce pie dish in my gift guide? Yeah, well, they thanked me by sending me one. Something I thought was totally unnecessary, but a lovely, generous gesture, which is just the kind of people they are!
For The Pie Dough:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup ice water, plus more if needed
For The Streusel:
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup cold (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
For The Filling:
1 1/2 pounds ripe (4 to 5 medium) yellow peaches, pitted and quartered
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons crème fraiche
1. To make the crust, whisk together flour, thyme, sugar, and salt in a bowl (or pulse in a food processor). Add the butter, pulsing until the dough starts to come together, but is messy, with lima-bean sized chunks. Drizzle in the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough just comes together. Squeeze a small handful of dough: If it doesn’t hold together, add more ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, until just incorporated, then test again. Do not overwork dough, or pastry will be tough.
2. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 4 portions. With heel of your hand, smear each portion once or twice in a forward motion to help distribute fat. Gather dough together into a ball, then press it into a disk. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
3. To make the streusel, sift together sugar, flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Using your hands or a pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Refrigerate.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to a roughly 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Fit into a 9 1/2- or 10-inch pie plate (about 1 1/2 inches deep). Trim edge to 1 inch; fold under, and crimp as desired. Pierce bottom of dough all over with a fork, and transfer to freezer for 30 minutes.
5. Preheat oven to 400o F (204.4o C). Cover edge of crust with foil. Line crust with parchment paper, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake, covered, 10 minutes. Remove weights and parchment (keep foil on edge). Bake until pale golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes more. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly; remove foil; reduce oven temperature to 375o F (190.5o C).
6. To make the filling, place peaches into a medium bowl, and sprinkle with sugar and salt; gently toss to coat, and allow to stand 15 minutes. Spread 2 tablespoons crème fraiche onto bottom of crust; sprinkle with one-third of the streusel. Arrange peaches on top; spread or dot with remaining 4 tablespoons crème fraiche. Sprinkle with remaining streusel.
7. Bake pie until crème fraiche is bubbling and streusel is golden brown, about 50 minutes. Cover edge of crust with foil if it’s browning too quickly. Let cool on a wire rack 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 1 pie.