Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Toasts | in memoriam of Baba

This isn't something I talk about frequently -- not because I don't wish to or it makes me sad, uncomfortable, or the like -- but for the complete opposite reason. It usually makes the people around me feel uneasy, resulting in being unsure of what to say, and in most cases (especially if they are individuals I haven't known for very long), having downcast expressions of pity. I know they would mean well, but it would subsequently make me feel uncomfortable, causing me to regret even bringing it up in the first place. Nevertheless, since I'm sharing whatever I wish to say out in the blogosphere, quasi-soliloquy, all of those collateral situations will be minimized and mostly circumvented.

Back in 2000, my mom and I lost my father (I called him Baba, for "father" in Cantonese) to his three-year, formidable battle with hepatocellular carcinoma (i.e., cancer of the liver). At the time, I was only thirteen. It was a rough adolescence for me and more of a trying time even for my incredibly resilient mother. While the wounds have long since ebbed from the incessantly afflicting bouts of grief, the void is still there, and we miss him every single day that has passed since. It has been difficult to find the perfect way to honor his memory over the years, mainly because I couldn't figure out what would work best without appearing clichéd and contrived. Even in the deepest of losses, I still wished to be original and personal.

Baba, Mom, and me visiting my cousin at Cornell University, circa 1990.

Baba always encouraged and pushed me to do and be my best every single day, and just like my mom, humility was paramount in doing so. In many ways, he was stubborn and fastidious (at times, ridiculously so), but mostly in a reasonable manner, and I see so much him in myself as I've grown much since those impressionable teenage years. Even though he is no longer with us, I continue carry his memory in the personality traits we shared. He was also a man who appreciated good food and would treat my mom and me to some quality dining a few times a year before he fell ill. Baba was the one who first introduced to the art of eating (i.e., outside of our family's kitchen), which included fancy seafood dinners over in The Highlands of New Jersey (Doris and Ed's comes to memory) and white-clothed tables in New York City (my first being at Union Square Café). I have him to thank for bringing me into the world of toques, haute cuisine, and enjoying all things culinary -- Four Tines could scarcely exist without him.

Today is the twelfth anniversary of his passing. Though it may be many years too late, I believe that I have found the best way -- poetic at best, naïve in the least -- to remember him. In a nutshell (you'll find out shortly but please pardon the pun), here is the train of thought behind what I wish to do:
{1} March 14 is informally celebrated as "Pi (π) Day" (as π is approximately equal to 3.14), a "holiday" that many elementary school mathematics teachers use to encourage students to learn more about geometry by doing activities related to the actual figure of π and to any related homophonic things (like dessert pie);
{2} Along with this, my entire extended family is obsessed with nuts (salted cashews, whole peanuts, toasted almonds, butter pecan ice cream, etc.);
{3} We also jokingly call ourselves "the nutty Addams Family" because of our quirky ways and crazy idiosyncrasies;
{4} My dad's American name begins with a P, and with our last name being Kan (pronounced kahn), I used to call him "P-Kan Nut" (my attempt at a clever play on "pecan").
So with the anniversary of his passing falling on "Pi Day," my family's "nutty" obsession, and my "punny" nickname for Baba, I thought it'd be equally appropriate to bake a pecan pie in his memory and continue making it as an annual ritual for years to come. This combination of cheesy, possibly witty, and maybe even nutty (ha-ha-ha) begins my attempt to create a pecan pie from scratch.

I found a recipe for rye pecan pie from The New York Times recipe archive. It seemed pretty straightforward, plus the included photograph made it even more enticing. Since pies are quite time-consuming to make from scratch, I divvied up the project over two days, so I could dedicate enough time for all of the steps.

The first part involved making the pie crust dough.

{1} The ingredients -- sugar, flour, cold unsalted butter, and kosher salt -- were {3} combined using a paddle attachment for my stand mixer on low speed. {2} The two pounds of cold butter needed to be cubed, added to the dry mixture, and mixed in until pea-sized lumps formed.

{4} Once the tiny lumps formed, I added half a cup of ice water to the dough mixture, just until it holds together. {5} Once the dough was ready, I rolled it until a ball, wrapped it loosely in Saran wrap, and rolled/flattened it into a disk, followed by placing it into the fridge overnight.

{6,7} To prep everything I could before the part of the recipe where I would bake the pie crust and fill the pie, I also took apart my springform cake pan and flipped the bottom over so that the outside surface faces in. This is to help prevent the pie dough from sinking into the pan's crease.

{8} Here are all of the pecan nuts needed for this recipe! {9} I poured the pecan halves from Whole Foods into a Pyrex container to store away overnight. These will be used to top the pie at the end. {10, 11} I also took the pecans I ordered from Fresh Direct and finely chopped them using my mini food processor. These will be used for the pie's filling. I did all of this on Monday night.

First thing to do when baking commences is to preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

On Tuesday evening, I was to finish the recipe. {1} I took the chilled dough out of the fridge about 15-20 minutes prior to rolling it out, my reason being that my refridgerator tends to be colder than most, so this would make it easier for {2} my spanking new silicone rolling pin to flatten it out!

I had never used a rolling pin before this recipe, so I lightly floured the parchment paper surface as instructed. {3} Man, did this take some muscle! I will have to flatten the dough out into a thinner disk for next time! {4} After about 10-15 minutes of really getting the rolling pin to knead the dough evenly flat to a 16-inch diameter, I lifted the flattened dough and {5} let it settle into the springform pan, fitting the dough down into its edges while pressing the sides firmly against the pan. Then I pinched around the top rim. I refrigerated this dough pan for about 45 minutes before taking it back out to finish the crust making process.

Once 45 minutes was up, {6} I took the pan out of the refrigerator and {7} placed a layer of parchment paper followed by some aluminum foil. Thanks to Linda, I was able to {8} use ceramic pie weights instead of the dried beans for which the recipe called, filling the foil lining with them. Then I put the pan into the oven to bake for about 20 minutes, once the crust turns light golden brown.

{9} After the crust became light golden brown (after about 20 minutes), I removed the parchment paper/foil lining along with the pie weights and returned it back to the oven for another 15 minutes. Once this step was completed, I let the pie cool for another 30 minutes before adding the filling.


While the pie crust was cooling, I lowered the temperature of the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and I got started on the filling. {1} Ingredients included molasses and bourbon. {2} I mixed the eggs, melted unsalted butter, molasses, light brown sugar, vanilla extract, kosher salt, and bourbon to be {3} whisked in my stand mixer on low-medium.

{4} After the crust finished cooling, {5} I added the mixed filling.

{6} I sprinkled the chopped pecans over the surface of the pie filling. {7,8} Then, working from outside in, I arranged the pecan halves in concentric circles without overlapping until the entire surface became covered. I put it back in the oven for a good 60 minutes until the filling became firm.

{9} An hour later, the pie was ready, and {10} I used a serrated knife to saw off the overhanging pie crust. I think the springform pan I had was a little deeper than the recipe had needed. Oh wells!

Ta-daaa! The finished rye pecan pie!

Here's the first slice, dedicated to my wonderful father, Baba, on Pi(e) Day.

Findings: Considering this was my first attempt at ever baking a pie, I would have to say that this was quite a surprising success -- I didn't expect it to turn out this delicious! The crust was golden and flaky -- I mean, think about how much butter I put in there! :P The recipe was pretty easy to follow, and the only hardship I encountered was rolling out the dough with my French-style rolling pin. What a workout! Also, I will have to find a shallower springform pan and get better with shaping pie crust. So for the coming years, I invite anyone who has a great pecan pie recipe to send them my way -- it is much appreciated!

All in all, I think I've found the perfect way to honor my dad's memory -- every Pie Day, pie will be eaten -- whether baked or bought -- and I'll reminisce about all of the great times I had with him, however limited they were. Missing you and thinking about you every day, Baba -- hope you like my P-Kan pie! :)

So if you can, please have a piece of pie today in memory of my dad on Pi(e) Day! :)

Price point: $6.99-10.99 for assorted packages of pecans, $20.99 for a bottle of bourbon.

--March 14, 2012

Whole Foods Market
4 Union Square South
New York, NY 10003


Union Square Wines
140 4th Avenue
New York, NY 10003



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