You might be under the impression that academia is a long sentence of secluded study, a sinking deeper and deeper into a straight backed chair while cobwebs collect around your ankles, the world spins on outside, and you try to understand French literary theory to no avail.
I’m not going to say you’re wrong, but there are other things involved, like teaching and giving presentations. Now, if you’re a person who is accustomed to solitary hours poring over obscure scholarly materials with your iPhone on silent, you can imagine that public speaking, even to fifteen college freshmen or twenty other introverts like you, can be translated equally well as either “sweat fest” or “hyperventilation.”
I’m exaggerating of course. But presentations are a pretty big ordeal in my books. Every once in a while, though, instead of just blind relief, the end of a presentation or lesson can leave me feeling victorious.
I’m not sure I felt victorious after giving a presentation in my visual culture class on the ethics of food photography, but I should have. It turned out that another student in my class was also harboring a love of food and an obsession with the food world. She introduced me to her roommate, an EDITOR AT AMERICA’S TEST KITCHEN, and said editor GAVE ME A TOUR. Now if that’s not a success I don’t know what is.
I first heard about America’s Test Kitchen a few years ago when I watched their show on PBS. They made a strawberry pie with three pounds of fresh strawberries in it. I tried it at home, and I was sold.
So, meeting someone who works there and getting a free tour? Dreams made.
But really. America’s Test Kitchen is awesome. About 30-40 cooks, along with editors, marketing teams, interns, and, sometimes, Christopher Kimball himself, are busy in an ordinary looking brick building in Brookline, a township just on the edge of Boston. At the test kitchens, chefs go through hundreds of permutations of recipes, coming up with tried and true versions that they pass on to us lowly folks at home.
Their miraculous cookbook library. Cooks start here when coming up with their recipes. They pull five or six “classic” takes on a recipe and try those first.
I got to taste two recipes in the works. These potatoes were in their final stages. At the end of recipe development, an intern follows the recipe with no help from the other cooks, just to make sure a newb can handle it. These were pretty awesome. I heard one of the cooks say, “It’s mostly just butter.” I’m looking forward to this recipe–how are they so tender and so crispy at once?
I also got to drop in on the gluten-free testing zone. Before coming up with over 130 recipes for their new gluten-free cookbook, these chefs spent weeks perfecting a flour replacement. One chef told me she had tasted more than 100 cookies. The one I had was “still gritty” in her opinion, but I thought it was pretty successful.
I rushed home on an adrenaline high to test my own recipe–their strawberry pie, with huge ripe strawberries from Russo’s. I discovered that they had changed the recipe since I first prepared it, but I don’t miss the old version. The new one has absurdly huge strawberries piled high on a flaky vodka crust.
I didn’t have vodka, so I used fifteen-year Macallan. Oops. All that testing and she can’t even follow directions. It was still pretty tasty. Despite its lumpy looks, the Roomz II said it was the best pie crust he had ever had–some kind of triumvirate–he became unintelligible partway through his paean.
Recipes adapted almost exactly from America’s Test Kitchen
Fresh Strawberry Pie
3 pounds fresh strawberries, gently rinsed and dried, hulled (that means to use a paring knife to remove the stem and its root)
¾ cup sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 ½ teaspoons Sure-Jell for low-sugar recipes (the pink box)
1 Tablespoon juice from 1 lemon (I used a bit more)
1 Baked Pie Shell (below)
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
1. Select 6 ounces misshapen, underripe, or otherwise unattractive berries (the ugly ones), halving those that are large; you should have about 1½ cups. In food processor, process berries to smooth puree, 20 to 30 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed. You should have about ¾ cup puree.
2. Whisk sugar, cornstarch, Sure-Jell, and salt in medium saucepan. Stir in berry puree, making sure to scrape corners of pan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with heatproof rubber spatula, and bring to full boil. Boil, scraping bottom and sides of pan to prevent scorching, for 2 minutes to ensure that cornstarch is fully cooked (mixture will appear frothy when it first reaches boil, then will darken and thicken with further cooking). Transfer to large bowl and stir in lemon juice. Let cool to room temperature.
3. Meanwhile, pick over remaining berries and measure out 2 pounds of most attractive ones; halve only extra-large berries. Add berries to bowl with glaze and fold gently with rubber spatula until berries are evenly coated. Scoop berries into (cooled) pie shell, piling into mound. If any cut sides face up on top, turn them face down. If necessary, rearrange berries so that holes are filled and mound looks attractive. Refrigerate pie until chilled, about 2 hours. Serve within 5 hours of chilling.
Note: I think you could use a store bought pie crust, but you would need to par-bake it, and you wouldn’t feel as cool, nor would the pie taste as delicious.
Perfect Flaky Pie Crust
Makes 1 9-inch pie crust
1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
½ teaspoon table salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
6 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch slices
¼ cup chilled vegetable shortening, cut into four pieces
2 Tablespoons vodka, cold (or whiskey, if you’re me)
2 Tablespoons cold water
Now, you do this in a couple steps, and somehow it makes a pie crust that is evenly mixed but not overmixed and tough.
1. In a food processor, blitz ¾ cups flour, salt, and sugar for about two seconds, just till combined. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 10 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds with some very small pieces of butter remaining, but there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape down bowl and redistribute around blade. Add ½ cup flour and pulse a few times until mass of dough has been broken up. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
2. Add water and vodka to bowl and use rubber spatula to press down and mix, waiting for dough to become slightly tacky. Flatten into a 4-inch disk. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 45 minutes to 2 days.
3. Adjust oven rack to lowest position, place rimmed baking sheet on oven rack, and heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out on generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface to 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Roll dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side. Working around circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with 1 hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave overhanging dough in place; refrigerate until dough is firm, about 30 minutes. (I forgot this refrigeration step–hence my slidy crust.)
4. Trim overhang to ½ inch beyond lip of pie plate. Fold overhang under itself; folded edge should be flush with edge of pie plate. Flute dough or press tines of fork against dough to flatten against rim of pie plate. Refrigerate dough-lined plate until firm, about 15 minutes.
5. Remove pie plate from refrigerator, line crust with foil, and fill with pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and weights, rotate plate, and bake for 5 to 10 additional minutes, until crust is golden brown and crisp. Let cool to room temperature.