It all started with my friend’s fascination with The Great British Baking Show. Amateur bakers compete making cakes, breads, pastries…and they do it in an iconic white tent in the middle of a rolling English countryside. Kinda weird, right?
Watching the show is entertaining but it can also be a nail-biting experience waiting to see if Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood (I swear I didn’t make those names up) find the results of the contestant’s intense labors acceptable or not. It doesn’t take long to realize that a soggy bottom (an undercooked pastry pie base) is a dreaded condition to be avoided at all costs.
I’m pretty bad at baking. That’s a hard thing to admit since I’m a firm believer that if you practice something…anything…you can excel at it. Unless, in my case, it involves yeast…or baking soda.
When my friend wanted to try the recipes from the show, I balked. These recipes are not for the casual cook. We negotiated. The first time, I made French onion soup (don’t bother looking it up, it’s not from the show) and she made a technically challenging dessert. The second time, I made homemade pretzels (which is from the show and actually quite fun to make) and she picked another technically challenging dessert.
The truth was, I wasn’t working nearly as hard as my friend was. It’s intimidating. True bakers have to take every thing into consideration…the room temperature, the humidity, good ventilation, quality ingredients. I was just there to have fun.
Until my son-in- law suggested that we have a British Baking Show Christmas.
That’s when it got serious.
Within moments of discovering the goal for this year’s Christmas, my friend emailed me at least a dozen possible recipes she’d researched from five seasons of shows. I pulled each one up and examined it critically…well, I looked at the pictures. I picked Ruby’s ‘Fit for a Queen’ Pie because it was clearly the prettiest. Yes, I know, I should have put more thought in my selection.
My friend and I planned a trial run. Frozen pizza is my typical emergency back up but the stakes were high—this was Christmas dinner (Ruby's pie is a savory pie not a sweet pie) A trial baking session was in order.
I almost panicked out when I actually read the instructions:
Hands-on time: 1 hour 45 mins
Baking time: 1 hour 30 mins
Skill level: needs skill.
I was at the starting line for a marathon and I’d only practiced jogging around the block. I had lots of questions…like why was I doing this? We laid out the ingredients and came up with a plan… I would take on the curry chicken filling.
Fortunately, we had Google…
How to convert grams to cups.
How to remove husks from cardamom pods.
What is tomato purée? Is that the same as tomato paste?
The recipe called for all types of interesting spices like cumin, cardamon, coriander and cinnamon. And star anise. Which I didn’t know existed and wins the coolest spice award. Not only does it look exactly like a star but it holds the vital ingredient for the flu-fighting drug—Tamiflu.
I was instructed to put the spices into a mini food processor and ‘blitz’ them together. I had a miniature food processor once…it looked like something that belonged in my daughter’s doll house. And when you turned it on…the machine emitted an angry high-pitched whine that sounded like a swarm of angry hornets. I got rid of it pretty fast.
I used a mortar and pestle instead. It’s quite satisfying to grind spices together, to crush them into an aromatic powder. The scent wafts up, hits your nose, and you get a sense of belonging in the kitchen. I was in my element. I added onions and chicken to a pan simmering with my homemade curry.
My friend made the turmeric pie crust (also the technically challenging part of the recipe). That’s all I know. I was busy making the meat filling. Looking back, I should have made the crust so I would learn something from the experience. I didn’t even pay attention to what she was doing until she was ready to roll it out.
The instructions required a 30cm circle that was 2.5mm thick. I wasn’t used to such precision but she managed to make it happen. And then she rolled another circle to create the top and attached the two pieces together. We popped it into the oven and chatted about the odds that this would turn out.
All together, it took us four hours. For those of you quick in math, that’s 45 minutes longer than the estimate. But not bad for someone who came to the table without skill.
The curry flavored chicken was great, the dough baked to a lovely golden color and ….no soggy bottom!
I was flying high and anticipating success for Christmas.
Perhaps I was cocky but I decided to throw caution to the wind and bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
I’m not sure exactly what I did wrong.
I bought everything on the ingredient list, checked it twice and followed the very simple instructions on the chocolate chip cookies bag. Somehow the dough succumbed to what must’ve been a higher gravitational force in my oven. Despite baking for the correct temperature and suggested time, the dough spread out in the pan and formed a uni-cookie.
You know how dog vomit looks wet and chunky and has unidentified particles? Yeah…that’s what my cookie looked like. Yum. My husband took one look and offered to buy the desserts. (Ever since that day, in conversations with friends and family, he refers to the event as the “epic cookie fail”).
My confidence was gone.
I did a forensic analysis of the cookie failure. I’m pretty sure it was the flour. The label said ‘Enriched Unbleached Flour’ and under that it said ‘wheat flour’ (which I thought was redundant since flour is made by grinding wheat, right?)
I tried to break it down.
Enriched meant the added niacin and riboflavin. Extra vitamins… no harm there.
Unbleached. I was never sure why flour was bleached in the first place…do we really want all of our food to be white? It sounded a lot healthier to get unbleached. But that might have been a problem. One quote said “many consider bleached flour ideal for cakes and pie crusts…the reality is that the differences how these flours bake are quite subtle.” Hmm, I’m not sure that’s true.
Maybe it was the Wheat part. Was this flour a whole-wheat flour or not? I don’t know.
To be honest, I don’t remember having so many types of flour in the past. Cake, pastry, bread, self-rising, whole wheat, gluten free….
00 flour (which sounds like something a secret agent would know about) is used for pasta and thin crusted pizza. It’s the finest grade of flour, like baby powder in consistency. Fascinating, right?
There’s more…rye, spelt (which I thought was a fish), buckwheat, barley, oat, Amaranth (which I thought was a city from the Bible). Lastly… plain flour. That’s the one I was supposed to have for my recipe. Which, according to Google, is pretty close to all purpose flour.
My husband was not exactly supportive when I asked him to go to the store to buy more flour. He shuddered. “You’re not going to make cookies again are you?”
And then he tried pleading with me, “I told you I would take care of the desserts. You don’t need to do this.” It wasn’t until I told him that the flour was for the Ruby’s ‘Fit for a Queen’ pie that he agreed to buy the stuff.
The recipe was complicated, I thought it was smart to divide it into two days. On the first day, I made the meat filling. The house smell like curry and success.
On the second day, I was careful to follow the instructions for the dough and was ecstatic when I rolled out the bottom section into the required circle. It was as I was admiring the round shape that I remembered to pull out the meat filling I’d stored in the fridge.
Somehow, overnight, the meat that I’d cooked had developed a sauce. My curry chicken was bathed in a liquid and the instructions were quite clear on this point. It was supposed to be a dry filling.
You can guess what would happen if it was too wet…that’s right…a soggy bottom. I strained the meat mixture in a colander over the sink.
Don’t tell anyone.
Finally, I assembled the top crust, poked the appropriate holes and placed the whole, beautiful, egg-washed creation in the oven.
The pastry crust baked up to a golden color and then, too quickly, started to brown around the edges. After getting some advice via text, I covered the top with tin foil and said a little prayer that my bottom crust wasn’t too thin, that I didn’t overwork the dough (a cardinal sin), and most importantly, that the crust would not dry out too much…crack…and release the curry chicken contents like a belching volcano.
Against all odds, it worked.
There’s a lot of pressure to be happy around holidays. Expectations of being jolly, content, merry, blissfully happy…
But it’s not possible for everyone. Not every year.
If you’re one of those people, I hope that you realize that this is only one episode in your life and trust me…there will be others. Award-winning seasons where your crust is flaky, your frosting is like velvet and your muffins tops puff with pride.
I wish I could give you a hug. I wish I could give you a slice….
Ruby's 'Fit for a Queen' pie!
Reginald Kenneth Dwight born in Pinner, England on March 25, 1947. Even at an early age, he knew he loved music. After listening to Elvis Presley, he decided he wanted to become a musician too.
With the help of a scholarship, he entered the Royal Academy of Music at age eleven. Even though his father considered a career in music an outrageous and unacceptable choice- he would not be swayed.
He worked as a pianist in a pub, formed bands with friends and performed solo at local hotels. By 1962, he signed with Dick James Music, the same publisher utilized by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In 1970, he released what would become his first top track, “Your Song.”
On December 6th, 1971 Ryan White was born. He had hemophilia—which means that he’s at risk for life-threatening internal bleeding. His transfusions of factor 8, the treatment for hemophilia, are from pools of donor blood.
Reginald was clearly talented, but there was a problem of image. He was slightly pudgy and his hair seemed to take on a life of its own. He needed a way to compete with the handsome rock stars of the time.
So he changed his name…his apparel..and his glasses. On May 7th, 1972 Reginald Kenneth Dwight became Elton Hercules John.
He’s always been good at the piano but he wants something to make him memorable. Elton dons coats with sequined labels and pearl embellishments, wears shiny track suits and silk kimonos. And he picks out wacky glasses, lots of them.
The costumes do the job…he’s remembered.
By the late 1970’s the HIV epidemic has started. It is believed to have originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a virus transmitted from chimpanzees to humans.
Elton John rises to fame with songs like: Levon, Rocket Man, Tiny Dancer, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets…really, I could go on for a long time but you get the idea.
HIV has spread to 5 continents by 1980 and that includes North America. By 1981, a rare lung infection called Pneumocystis cabrini pneumonia is diagnosed in five gay men in Los Angeles and gay men in New York and California were coming down with an aggressive cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma. By the end of 1981, 121 gay men died as a result of their severe immune deficiency.
By 1982, the CDC uses the term AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Ryan White is diagnosed in 1984. By this point, 3,665 people have already died.
Ryan is forbidden to return to middle school due to fears that the deadly virus could be transmitted by casual contact. Ryan loses his newspaper route when no one wants to touch the papers that he’s delivering. The little boy is shunned and taunted for an infection that will ultimately kill him.
The news displays dramatic photos of the afflicted men. Their deep sunken eyes and emaciation are reminiscent of Holocaust victims. Their demise appears imminent... and the fear of this infection becomes wide-spread.
Elton John achieves fame but finds that it doesn’t fulfill him in the manner he expected. He suffers from depression and his life soon revolves around drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate.
Without intending to, Ryan becomes a spokesperson for the AID epidemic. While some churches were declaring that AIDS was God’s curse on the homosexual life and IV drug abusers, Ryan disagreed saying that "AIDS is an infectious disease, nothing more, and it had the power to infect and harm any human being unfortunate enough to have contracted it.” Ryan White is successful in shifting the public’s perception about AIDS, he fought back against the discrimination and hatred with patience and grace.
Elton John noticed what was happening.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Elton John’s excessive lifestyle put him at considerable risk for AIDS but ultimately, he was spared and instead an innocent boy...who just wanted to go back to his school and classmates, was infected.
Elton John was moved by Ryan’s attempts to educate about AIDS and desire to fix the national blood supply so that it was adequately screened for the virus. (One doctor who treated hemophilia stated that he lost every single one of his patients to AIDS during the epidemic) He reached out to Ryan and his mother, arranging private tours and a trip to Disneyland. Elton John consider Ryan White his friend.
In 1987, Elton John abandoned his wild and flamboyant lifestyle (but not his wardrobe!)
On April 8, 1990, Ryan White dies of AIDS…with Elton John at his side. Shortly after, Elton checked into a rehab center for alcohol, substance abuse and bulimia.
Elton John established the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992. It raises 400 million dollars to prevent future infections and provide treatments for those affected.
In 2010, Elton John writes a letter to the dead little boy who inspired him to change his life.
I once heard a woman describe an experience that happened to her as she waited in the drive-through line at Starbucks. She’d placed her order, pulled out her purse to find the exact change and then failed to notice that the car in front of her had moved forward.
The car behind her certainly noticed.
The lady leaned heavily into her car horn. When the woman looked behind her to figure out what was going on...it was clear that the lady was absolutely furious. Over coffee?
When I think about how I would’ve responded in that situation, many ideas went through my mind.
But, not this.
Through the rear view mirror, that woman watched the crazy lady as she screamed and waved her arms. And then she came to a decision. She put away the change she'd carefully sorted through and pulled out her credit card. When it was her turn, she paid for the crazy lady's order. Here's why...
She knew that the lady was having a bad day. More likely a hellish...water pipe broke, husband lost his job and the teacher wants to chat about a behavior problem...and I can't even get a frickin' cup of coffee...kinda of day.
We've all had them.
But this woman did something epic and wonderful...she showed compassion to a crazy lady.
Here's my goal.
I want to be more generous with my love.
I want to smile at grumpy people.
Compliment busy waitresses.
Be patient with a harried customer service reps.
Look harder to see someone's heart.
Before I tell you... let me tell you about this particular box.
I found it when I was in college. It wasn’t much to look at but it was cheap and sturdy. My dad volunteered to see if he could clean it up a bit. He loved tinkering in the garage on ‘projects’.
The box was perfect for storing something that I didn't want broken but I was reluctant to use it until my dad finished with it. It just didn't seem fitting. But, after he sanded and stained the wood, it was impossible to see what the original purpose of the heavy box was...
The box is the perfect size to hold my nativity set.
Each year I wrap the individual pieces up and tuck them away for safe keeping.
Each year, I think of my dad and all the little things he used to do for me...slipping me a twenty for gas money, checking the air pressure in my tires...cooking an extra chicken on the grill for me to take home.
Back to what the box used to be...
It used to be an ammunition box.
It stored bullets designed to maim and kill....now it holds the symbol of forgiveness.
Last year, my family made the decision to not exchange Christmas gifts any longer.
I was pretty nervous about it...aren't presents the very definition of Christmas?
So I've spend most of the year thinking about how to replace this custom.
I've been trying to come up with something fabulous.
A helicopter ride?
Fancy dinner downtown?
Something that will appeal to everyone.
A Christmas play?
It was stressing me out.
Which is exactly what we were trying to avoid when we made this decision.
So I gave up making any plans.
And that felt incredibly right.
Here's what won't happen this year.
My son won't spend half of a day doing his last minute shopping during the short time that he's visiting.
My daughter won't arrive looking anxious as she tries to please both sides of her new family and attend all planned events.
We’ll cook... drink... watch Christmas shows and we’ll talk.
And I can’t wait.