Archive for January, 2011

Apple Pie!

On a whim, I decided to enter an apple pie baking contest at Mack’s Apples, a local orchard that has been in operation since 1732.  They’ve been hosting their apple pie contest for 21 years.  I thought, what the heck, I can bake a decent apple pie and this sounded like a fun community event.

The first apple pie I ever baked was in 1991, when I was living in China.  This was back when you couldn’t find many Western goods in China and if you wanted any American food, you had to make it yourself, from scratch.  So I learned to bake an apple pie for our small ex-pat Thanksgiving gathering that year.  It was quite a thrill when it came out of the tiny electric oven.  Nicely browned and bubbling apple goop out of the cut slits.  Since then, I’ve baked my fair share of pies and usually they come out pretty tasty.

For this contest, I thought I should test my pie first on some willing takers.  A week before the contest, we hosted a potluck for Milo’s playgroup and I foisted my first try on them.  For this pie, I used the Foolproof Pie Dough recipe from a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated.  I also tried to address the issue of too much liquid when the apples cook down in the pie.  I found this sometimes happens and makes the lower crust soggy.  I had read about a technique called maceration, which calls for the cut apples to be mixed with sugar and spices and to sit in a colander for an hour so that the juices can be collected before baking.  The juices are cooked down into a syrup, which is added back to the apples right before baking.  Sounded fancy.  A little complicated.  So I tried macerating the apples, boiled down the syrup, etc., and fed it to the playgroup potluck.  I thought the pie came out a little dry and the apples tasted a little bland.  It was the kind of pie that needed ice cream with it.  Not optimal.

A few days later, my parents hosted a small gathering because my brother was visiting and I foisted a pie on them.  This time, I used the same crust (which had come out nice and flaky the last time) and did not bother to macerate the apples.  I just mixed up the apples with sugar and cinnamon and a little bit of cornstarch and dumped it into the pie.  This pie came out juicier, but maybe a little too juicy.  If I had let it sit for any length of time, the bottom crust might have become soggy.  Not optimal.

The night before the the contest, I decided the best thing to do was to pre-cook the apples before putting them in the pie.  In my search for recipes, I came across a basic recipe that seemed like it would work, with a few adjustments.  I made my pie dough that evening and put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Milo tastes the apples. Mommy hasn't showered yet.

The recipe called for apple juice, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I substituted a dry white wine–a nice California chardonnay I had been saving.  The alcohol would cook out of the mixture and we would be left with a lovely tart acidity to counter the sweetness of the apples.  I also added spices and decreased the amount of sugar, as I don’t like my pies to be super sweet. Finally, I would top off the whole thing with more butter.  In my opinion, you can never have too much butter.

The next morning, I got up and started peeling and coring apples.  Milo kept me company part of the time and helped by taste testing the apples.  Most the time, Daddy took care of him so that I could concentrate on building my pie.  I used Golden Delicious and Mutsu apples (from Mack’s Apples, of course) and cooked them in the white wine, brown sugar, and butter.  It was sweet and fragrant as the apples cooked down to just tender.  I added spices, white sugar and a few tablespoons of cornstarch, and cooked the mixture a bit more until the juices started to thicken.  (This is the way I add cornstarch to my beef broccoli so that the juices thicken and are not too watery.  Beef broccoli and apple pie–hm.)

Topped with extra butter!

I let the apple mixture cool down until it stopped steaming. In the meantime, I rolled out my pie pastry.  The chilled pie pastry was pretty easy to roll out.  Once the apples had cooled down, I poured the mixture into the pie and dotted it with some extra butter.  (Again, you can never have too much butter.)  Then I topped the pie with the upper crust.  Unfortunately, I got a little too eager with cutting slits into my upper crust and my pie looked a little sad, like a bad slasher job.  So I cut out a few decorative leaves and tried to patch up the edges.  Voila!

This pie recipe calls for baking the pie at a lower temperature (350F) than usual pie temperature (425F).  I figured this was because the apples were pre-cooked, but I was still a little paranoid about the crust not browning well, so I compromised at 375.  I brushed the upper crust with egg white and sprinkled on some cinnamon sugar and popped it into the oven.  About an hour later, I had a lovely, golden brown apple pie.  The crust had risen a little more than usual and I attributed this to the lower temperature, but when I poked the crust a little and saw that it was flaky, I knew I had something good.

I whisked the warm pie off to Mack’s and submitted my entry.  It took a little bit of faith to submit a pie I hadn’t tasted yet, but I knew it couldn’t be too bad to be inedible.  Details of the apple pie contest to follow.

For my complete recipe of Third Try Apple Pie, click here.

Warm apple pie. Yum!

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Tiger Motherhood

This essay, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,  came across my facebook newsfeed and pretty much gave me post-traumatic stress.   This essay is an excerpt from the soon-to-be published book, The Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua.  The article recounts Ms. Chua’s own parenting philosophy, contrasting the Chinese parent and the Western parent.  There is a particularly harrowing scene in which Ms. Chua, trying to help her daughter master a piece on the piano, tries to “motivate” her daughter by calling her “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.”

If I had a dime for every time my mother called me “lazy,” “undisciplined,” or “stupid.”  Her favorite phrase was, “What’s wrong with you?”  She was trying to “motivate” me too.  Intellectually, I know she did so out of love.  She wanted me to succeed so that I would be accomplished and financially secure in America, and accomplishments and financial security is what she equated with happiness.  Intellectually, I understand why my mother parented in this way.  But emotionally, I have always felt unworthy of my own mother’s love.  This has made me feel unworthy of love in general, an insecurity which has plagued my friendships, relationships, self-esteem, and marriage.  In so many ways, I have failed my mother’s expectations of me.  I was not very good at piano, I did not become a doctor, I didn’t marry a doctor or even someone I could call a sugar daddy.  As a writer, I am far from financially secure.  And now, as I am a mother myself, my mother can be critical of how I mother my own child.  It never ends.

I’m far from alone.  Most of us who have Chinese mothers can relate.  The top comment on the New York Time Motherlode column is this, from “Catie”:

I was raised by a Chinese mother like Ms. Chua, with the added “bonus” of frequent and harsh corporal punishment.

The postitive side of this style of parenting: I have a couple of advanced degrees and a faculty position at a prestigious University. I own a home and am financially stable.

The negative side of this style of parenting: I have no emotional connection to either of my parents and I was greatly relieved when my mother passed away. I moved thousands of miles away from my father to get away from a man who stood idle while a small child was beaten, degraded, and humiliated. I have stayed in abusive relationships because I have an unhealthy threshold for mistreatment– it’s easy to minimize bad behavior when my own mother treated me even worse in the name of love.

Is it worth it? My parents would probably say that it was, and that academic/financial success, social prestige, and family honor outweigh any of the emotional and psychological consequences. I disagree.

Needless to say, Ms. Chua’s essay struck a chord with many.  It recalls some primal defenses many of us developed against a barrage of criticism, of growing up in a household where love was withheld unless you performed perfectly.  Mine is a generation of Asian American adults that collectively struggles with the collateral damage of what the essay calls Chinese parenting.  We vow not to do the same with our own children, but we have no models of how to do it better.

To be fair, as I read through the essay, I did not get the sense that Ms. Chua was actually advocating for “Chinese parenting.”  (I put this term in quotations because I am loathe to generalize all Chinese parents.)  I thought the essay was an attempt to shed light on the differing parenting philosophies and how each of them find the other equally horrific.  Westerners would call “Chinese parenting” borderline abusive.  Chinese would call “Western parenting” undisciplined and self-indulgent, a failure to prepare a child for survival in the big, bad uber-competitive world.  Westerners value self-confidence and critical thinking and individuality to make one’s dreams come true.  Chinese value honoring the family and the ancestors through tradition and virtue.

My husband is a Westerner who can trace his lineage back to the Mayflower and he was raised with a fairly Beaver Cleaver childhood.  His mother is the sweetest person ever and he calls her several times a week.  They can talk for hours.   But, quite frankly, my husband, with his Beaver Cleaver upbringing, has as many dysfunctional issues as an adult as I do.  Even his mother would say so.

Of course, my husband had a visceral reaction to Ms. Chua’s essay.  He couldn’t stop talking about how wrong she was and trying to poke holes in her argument.

“Argument?”  I said.  “I don’t think she’s trying to argue for anything.”

“But she titled the essay, ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.'”

“Hm,” I said.  “I highly doubt she chose that title herself.”

I know a thing or two about publishing and I know the writer doesn’t always get full control of how his or her material is marketed.  A headline like “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” is designed to get people to read it.  I suspected the essay itself may have been edited to create buzz/interest/outrage about the upcoming book.  Nothing helps book sales better than controversy.

It turns out I was right.  A few days after the essay was published in the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang, who writes the AsianPop column in the San Francisco Chronicle actually read Ms. Chua’s book and interviewed her for his column, which he entitled “Mother, Superior?” From the article:

Apparently, it [the essay] had been edited without her [Chua’s] input, and by the time she saw the version they intended to run, she was limited in what she could do to alter it.

“I was very surprised,” she says. “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

Because of the Wall Street Journal essay, Ms. Chua has received a firestorm of criticism from the public, accusing her of being a horrible mother, “wrong,” “a monster,” “pathetic.”   (Hm, criticism not unlike that from a Chinese mother.)  But it seems the publicity is doing its part.   Discussion of Ms. Chua’s “excerpt” has been on the Today Show, NPR, The Huffington Post, and all over the blogosphere.  Advance book sales of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have been through the roof.  Unfortunate how Ms. Chua’s reputation has to be sacrificed for the business of publishing.

My mother did cut out a copy of “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and gave it to me, two days after I had already read it online.  She probably read it as a justification for her parenting style.  I get it, I want to say to her.  You did it out of love.  But the damage has been done.  I don’t tell her this, of course, because my mother has never listened to me, as much as I’ve tried and keep trying.  On this occasion, it’s too much emotional energy to spend on a talking to a deaf ear.

My relationship with my parents is strained at best and we will probably never be “close,” the way many Western families tell each other everything and can talk for hours.  As much as I wish things were different, I don’t really blame my parents for their shortcomings.  They didn’t know any other way of parenting.  They had Chinese mothers too.

I will write more about this, I’m sure.  As Flannery O’Connor said, anyone who survives childhood should have enough to write about for a lifetime.

My mother and me, circa 1972

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