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Cooking for One: Graduates: Go with flow of life's lessons

Thursday, June 20, 2002

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Class of 2002, welcome to the real world. You are about to leave the cocoon of higher education and embark upon your life's work. As you reflect on your last four years of classes, you may think that some were a waste of time. I disagree. If there is a maxim to keep in your jeans pocket as you go through life, it is this. "You never know when something they taught you in school might actually turn out to be useful."

In the year 19-none-of-your-beeswax, I was a senior at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). To graduate with a bachelor of science in education, all home economics majors were required to student-teach for a semester.

My assignment was at Clark High School in Scott (now business offices), where I was to teach seven classes of home ec to 9th- and 10th-grade girls.

I hated it. While I was expounding on the merits of a fluffy biscuit, the girls in the back troweled on lipstick. When I demonstrated the art of sewing a cuff to a sleeve, the same girls flipped their hair and raised their chins in disdain. They filed their nails; they wrote notes. This robbed me of the pleasure of teaching the majority of students, who loved the classes.

My lesson plans for the end of the year included lemon meringue pies, with all five working kitchens in the home ec lab in seven classes baking pies on the same day. It was a ton of prep, because the whole semester's work would be focused on one dish and its presentation.

Wearing their printed percale, class-made aprons, the girls would need to apply all of their cooking lessons to this one recipe: how to measure, combine, mix, blend, whip, simmer, time, season and make judgment calls.

Much could go wrong. The crust could be overworked and tough (the gluten lesson). The filling could curdle from overcooking the egg yolks (the protein lesson). The meringue could weep, shrink and collapse (the sugar stabilization lesson). Presenting the pies would require pretty plates and modest garnishing (the food-styling lesson).

The 35 lemon meringue pies turned out pretty well, most of them, and I got a B+ for my student-teaching grade. But at the end of the day, I vowed that I would never again step inside a classroom to teach the unwilling.

In the summer of that year, I cut the family apron strings and moved, full of beans and ambition, to Manhattan -- city of bright lights, opportunity, love and riches. Yes sir, I wanted to work with food, not teen-agers!

After a few false starts, I landed a job interview at McCall's magazine, at 320 Park Ave. at Grand Central Station, the center of the universe. They were hiring an assistant food editor. The job description included recipe testing, writing copy, food styling for photography, representing the magazine at public relations events and doing anything else needed to get the monthly issue on the newsstand.

The interview with food editor Helen McCully went fairly well. Among other things, she asked me what I would make for dinner from the contents of my fridge if she were to come to my house that very night. Right. What would you do -- age 21, single, with no job, living in an efficiency apartment? I lied, of course.

Then came the kicker. "Our editors test and create all of the recipes in every issue," McCully said, peering over her tortoise-shell reading glasses perched low on her patrician nose. "You have the credentials for this job, Marlene. But we need to know if you can actually cook. Please go into the kitchen, where a recipe and prep trays have been set out for you. Make us a lemon meringue pie."

I nailed it. The job was mine.

That was Step 1 of a lifelong career in food, teaching the public at large via magazines, cooking school, food styling, speaking engagements and newspapers. (By the way, this is my 100th Cooking for One column.)

So you see, graduates? Even when you don't see the point, pay attention.

You never know.

Lemon Meringue Pie

9-inch baked pastry shell, your own or packaged
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups cold water
3 egg yolks, slightly beaten with a fork
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/3 cup lemon juice

Prepare and bake a 9-inch pastry shell, or bake a prepared pie shell according to package directions. Let cool before filling.

Combine cornstarch, sugar and salt in a large saucepan, mixing well. Blend in the cold water.

Using a rubber spatula, stir constantly over medium direct heat until mixture thickens. The mixture will go from cloudy to curdled-looking, and then thicken all at once. A flat spatula will keep the mixture "moving" and prevent scorching.

Continue stirring and cooking for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir half of the hot mixture into the egg yolks, mixing well. Pour back into saucepan. Continue to cook and stir 2 minutes longer over low direct heat.

Remove from heat and add butter, lemon zest and lemon juice. Cool at least 10 minutes or up to an hour.

Pour filling evenly into pie shell and top with meringue according to the recipe below.

Meringue

3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a medium bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar with an electric mixer until soft peaks form.

Gradually beat in sugar and salt a little at a time. Continue to beat until firm peaks form when beaters are raised.

Spread meringue over warm pie filling. Be sure the meringue touches the crust all the way around the edge of the pie to prevent shrinkage. Mound meringue slightly higher in the center.

Bake the pie at 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until meringue is golden with brown highlights. Cool on wire rack about 1 hour before serving.

Pastry for a 9-inch pie shell

Most professional pastry chefs recommend that you chill pie dough and roll it out on a floured board. But novices, occasional bakers and high school home ec kids can use this unconventional method to make perfect, flaky pie crust every time. Roll the dough between sheets of waxed paper and the pastry will always have an even thickness and an even edge with a minimum of handling.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold Crisco shortening
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water

To make the dough, spoon flour lightly into a measuring cup and level. Dump into a large bowl and add salt. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender until it has the appearance of tiny, coarse pebbles.

Sprinkle water, a tablespoon at a time, onto flour-shortening mixture. Mix gently with a fork. Use only enough water to make dough clump together loosely. With your hand, gently press the dough together and "clean" the sides of the bowl.

To roll the dough, place ball of dough onto a rectangle of waxed paper. It will be a little crumbly. Cover the dough with a second sheet.

Roll dough into a thick disc. (When rolling, always start in the middle of the dough and stroke the pin away from you toward the outside edge, turning the dough clockwise as you go.)

The edge will be cracked and uneven. To correct this, lift edge of top paper and press uneven dough edges in toward the center with the fingertips to make a neat, round disc of dough. (Do this once or twice more as you roll.)

Replace the waxed paper and continue rolling until the circle of dough is about 1 1/2 inches wider than the inverted pie plate. Some of the dough will have eased out from the paper. Dab it with flour to keep it from sticking.

Peel off top sheet of waxed paper and discard. Use the bottom sheet to help pick up disc of dough (it will adhere and not slip), and invert it over the pie plate.

Center the dough. Carefully peel off paper. If dough sticks, start peeling in another place. Ease pastry down into pie plate, pressing lightly on the sides and bottom for a good fit. There will be about 1 inch of dough overhanging.

Tuck pastry under neatly and crimp or flute the edges.

Prick bottom and sides of pastry all over with tines of a fork. This prevents blisters from forming. If crust bubbles, gently push bubbles down with back of spoon.

Bake in a hot oven, 425 degrees for about 15 minutes. Don't let the bottom crust become too brown. There will be some shrinkage. Cool on a wire rack.

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