It all started when my buddy Sam had a bright idea for an easy, kid-friendly weekend excursion. “We could take all the kids to Tanaka farms and pick strawberries!” he said.
Not a bad plan on the surface. It was just down the road. A good excuse to get his two-year-old daughter out of the house so his wife could rest with the new baby, and for me to wrest my video-game-playing, iPod-listening, computer mushroom nits out of their rooms and into the open air. And hatched, as is was, on a flawless, sunny, SoCal February day, it sounded like a great idea at the time.
Too bad it wasn’t actually strawberry season yet. Or that after weeks of sunshine a violent rain storm moved in and exploded over my house at exactly the time I was supposed to leave, leading to a volley of frantic text-messages:
“clearing up here…Go?”
“Mud farm? Plan B.”
“rain boots. GO!.”
until finally I thought what the heck and decided to brave it, with my rain boots and umbrella but sans the Drama teen, who refused to leave the house at this point. When the rain slacked off enough Jack and I schlepped down to the farm and met up with the others and tromped through the mud and picked a total of 7 strawberries.
“You said we’d have enough to make a strawberry pie,” said Jack.
Yes. Well. The best-laid plans, and all that. Fast forward a couple of weekends. Jack is still on me, every day, about this strawberry pie. So I buy three baskets of strawberries at the Sunday Farmer’s Market, (strawberries are super cheap right now) and, with nobody home and nothing better to do and some pricey Irish butter taunting me from the ‘fridge, I decide today is the day I will make good on my promise. My goal is humble: Strawberry tarts, or hand pies, or galettes, or something with strawberries and pastry that is pie-like but smaller than an actual pie.
The strawberry I sampled at the Farmer’s Market is just starting to be sweet. You can taste how good it might be had it not been picked for another couple of days. “Next week they’ll be perfect,” the guy tells me. But today my strawberries are not perfect; they’re still greenish yellow at the tops and they don’t smell like summer. Still, baked in a good dough with sugar on top, how bad could it be?
I used this recipe from Deb at Smitten Kitchen (who else?) She adapted it from Martha Stewart, but let us not dwell so on origins.This is for a pate brisee, which I guess is a pastry dough that’s not as sweet as pate sucree?
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water.
Now, all the cool kids have food processors, which, I’m told, makes pastry dough making a cinch. I do not have a food processor, and in any case, I want to learn how to do these things the traditional way, by hand.
The idea of making my own pastry dough excites me. I know it’s supposed to be simple, but that there’s an encyclopedia of nuance that can make it or break it. It’s the first thing a pastry chef in training learns to do. It’s my ongoing obsession with learning how to do the simple basics. Ultimately, I know that the ability to make a good pastry dough is the gateway drug to a whole new level of cooking: carmelized onion tarts! Pot pies! Quiche!
I’m all ready to begin when my neighbor Marisa knocks on the door. My concentration drops a notch, but I’m glad she’s there because she can wend her way around a kitchen much better than I can. She seems greatly amused by my little Sunday experiment. (“Eight ounces is one cup. You’ve got two sticks of butter right there, dork.”) She settles in to watch.
One by one, the kids come home, playdates in tow. Marisa’s daughter runs in. Then Luke shows up.
The beers come out.
Resigned to abject, humiliating failure, I take a long draught from a cold bottle and launch right in. Not unlike driving to a strawberry farm in the pouring rain. What the hell.
I work the pats of butter into the flour with my fingers, adding just a bit of ice water, and despite all the odds, find myself with a neat ball of dough that is neither too dry nor too sticky. Huh. I cut it into fourths and roll it out, placing the discs between wax paper to set in the freezer for an hour or two.
In the meantime, Jack has cut up a mountain of strawberries. Deb’s recipe for the filling calls for 3 cups of strawberries (we have probably seven cups), with 1/4 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons of cornstarch thrown over and mixed in. Set this aside.
Since I don’t really know what a galette is (Wikepedia refers to it as simply the French word for flat, round or free-form crusty cakes.) I focus on the free form and roll out my now-chilled dough in little 5-inch circles. I guess I’m going for tarts.
But the strawberries, even sliced in fourths, are too big, and my first attempts look like giant raviolis.
Moving right along, I cut the strawberries smaller and try what Marisa was calling “the taco route,” that is, put the fruit in, flip it over, like an omelet. Or a taco. That worked better. It was her idea to use a fork to pinch the sides down (Or they’ll SEEP! You don’t want seepage…”) and also told me to perforate the tops so I could avoid having to scrub exploded strawberry jam out of my oven for the next week.
I awarded her with another beer.
The big ravioli/strawberry galettes came out golden brown. They barely had time to cool before the children all came running into the kitchen, following their noses, and fell on them. There was perfect silence for several whole minutes.Then they left their empty plates at the sink and ran back out of the kitchen.
I think that means they liked them.
A little later I tried the taco galette, and it was indeed impressive, especially considering the source. The dough was buttery and fresh-tasting, not too sweet. The strawberries, well they’re impossible to mess up so I can’t take credit for the filling.
Jack never forgets. Long ago I told him that some people could bake and some people could cook, but rarely could they do both. “You definitely bake better than you cook, Mom.” He looked over to the tankard of strawberries still remaining. “Now will you make a pie?”
It’s NOW officially strawberry picking season at Tanaka Farms. Tell ‘em I sent you.And YOU probably won’t need your rain boots.