THE WONDER YEARS
Ah, my sweet little boys; born in France to a French (Catholic) father and an American (Jewish) mother and brought to Italy at the tender ages of 1 and 3 to spend 7 years learning to become Italian. Life is a dream, life is full of wonder and life is tough and confusing. Caught between all of these various worlds, struggling to juggle conflicting identities, find common cultural ground, muddling through the learning process of cultural identity, my two boys became true mini-cultural melting pots.
Children soak up language and culture like tiny sponges. They pick and choose what suits, copying friends, trying to fit in, asking questions, accepting or refusing. We struggled as well, trying to guarantee that they spoke all necessary languages, were able to slide into one culture or the other as we traveled and spent time with family, trying to give them a bit of Opera or quality cinema and good books alongside the Italian love of football (soccer) or the schoolyard passion for Ninja Turtles or Space Rangers.
We had decided quite early on that they would be immersed in Italian culture, go to public school, speak the language fluently. We bought our first tv so they could watch video cassettes in Italian (Beatrix Potter and Don Giovanni) as well as films in English and French so they would be able to stay in the swing of things. School holidays were spent between Florida, New York and Paris, and weekends devoted to soaking up the culture in Toscana, Umbria, Lombardia and further.
And then there was food. Our kids grew up eating pizza and pasta instead of McDonald’s and KFC. Friday nights we would go to one of our neighborhood favorite ristoranti where they could try any Italian dish, and they grew to have fine Italian palates, preferring this cuisine to all others.
Yet, somewhere, deep down, they are true blue Americans (or so I like to think). Every trip back home, I would fill our suitcases with old Disney movies from the 60’s (The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor) and books, my childhood favorites (the entire Beverly Cleary series starring Henry, Beezus, Ramona and Ribsy, Ellen Tebbits and Otis Spofford; E. L. Konigsburg and the Encyclopedia Brown collection), as well as souvenir t-shirts and cool American candy. I would bring back spice mixes and chili mix, Ding Dongs and Pop Tarts. And at home I would bring that good old American culture to the table in the form of hot dogs and hamburgers, chili and seafood gumbo, layer cakes and chocolate chip cookies.
And through it all, they are, in their own strange, unique way, All-American. One plays Don McLean, Cat Stevens and Neil Young on the guitar while scarfing down, well, um, Camembert and baguette or focaccia and humus. Okay. The other dresses like an American skater dude, can recite entire dialogues from any of the Marx Brothers films, loves American police series and Will Smith movies while eating pizza and pasta or, yes, Subway sandwiches, peanut butter on white bread and grilled cheese with potato chips.
Although their tastes are as different as night and day, there are certain foods they both clamor for : grilled cheese sandwiches with processed American cheese served with potato chips, chocolate layer cakes and hamburgers on buns with fries with plenty of ketchup. And Apple Pie. Plain, simple and good, piles of naturally sweet slices of fruit encased in between two sweet, flaky crusts, the whole redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg. And eaten slathered with loads of canned whipped cream!
How American is that?
AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE
Double recipe Sweet Pastry Pie Shell
8 apples, your favorite for pie *
½ to 2/3 cup (100 to 130 g) sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter, more or less
Cinnamon-Sugar for dusting top of pie
Milk for brushing top of pie
* I usually use Golden Delicious, even if I find them a bit too bland for my taste, or, better yet, Reine de Reinette. This time I used Fuji which tasted fantastic cooked like this, but remained a bit too firm for an ideal pie.
Sweet Pastry Pie Crust – double recipe
2 ½ cups (315 g) flour and more for work surface
½ cup (100 g) sugar
14 Tbs (200 g) unsalted butter *
2 eggs, lightly beaten
* most pie crust recipes call for the butter to be chilled. I have found that butter at room temperature is easier and quicker to work into the flour and the dough seems to be fluffier and the resulting crust flakier. If the dough is too sticky to roll out right away, several minutes in the fridge should do the trick.
Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C). Butter a pie plate and dust lightly with flour.
Prepare double pie crust :
Combine flour and sugar in a mixing bowl or on a work surface. Using only your thumbs and fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until the consistency of sand and there are no more large chunks of butter.
With a fork, vigorously stir in the lightly beaten egg until all the dry ingredients are moistened and a dough starts to form.
Gather the dough together into a ball and place on a lightly floured surface. Using the heel of one hand, smear the dough little by little away from you in quick, hard strokes in order to make sure that all of the butter is blended in well.
Scrape up the dough together, re-flour the surface lightly and work very briefly and quickly until you have a smooth, homogenous dough. If the dough is a bit too soft or sticky for you, refrigerate it for 10 or 15 minutes until it can be easily rolled out without sticking to your rolling pin.
Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the smaller piece of dough and line the buttered and lightly floured 10” wide, 1 1/2” deep pie dish, carefully lifting and placing the dough into place rather than just pressing which will cause the dough to rip. Press closed any gaps or rips and prick the dough all over with a fork. Set the other half of dough aside, in the refrigerator to re-firm up slightly, if necessary.
Prepare the apples :
Peel and core the apples and slice.
Place the apples in a very large mixing bowl. Stir the sugar with the cinnamon and the nutmeg together until uniformly blended. Add to the apples and toss until the sugar-spice mixture is evenly coating the apple slices. (I find that this is easiest just using my hands)
Finish the pie :
Fill the bottom crust (the lined pie plate) with the apple slices, moving them around to fill in any gaps and so that they are evenly distributed. Dot the apples with half of the butter.
Roll out the top crust so it is a bit larger than the pie plate and carefully place it on top of the apples, hanging over the edges. Cut off excess of top and bottom crusts leaving about an inch of dough. Tuck and press the top and bottom dough together to seal and then crimp. Trim excess dough.
If you want to decorate the top of the pie, gather up all the excess dough, press into a ball and roll out. Cut into shapes. I usually cut out one large apple shape with a stem and a few leaves and place in the center of the crust. This time I used my groovy new baby cutter (most likely for almond paste, but what the heck) and cut out a whole grove of tiny apples). Brush a little of the milk (I had leftover egg + milk egg wash in the fridge and used this) onto the spot you want your decorative dough piece and “glue” the dough shape onto the crust.
Brush the egg wash or milk all over the top of the crust. Slice 5 or 6 vents in the crust. Sprinkle the whole top crust with cinnamon-sugar. Dot with the rest of the butter.
Place the pie in the preheated hot oven for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F (180°C) and continue baking for 30 minutes or until both top and bottom crusts are browned.
Allow to cool somewhat to allow the filling to set (sliced too hot and you may have liquid juices running out), and eating it too hot may burn your tongue (no way to enjoy this delicacy).
And serve, warm or at room temperature, with lots of whipped cream or a scoop or two of vanilla or chocolate ice cream. And eat, preferably, in front of the tv watching a cool police show or a fun movie.