How many magazine covers scream “Six Weeks to a Perfect You,” “How to Plan the Perfect Vacation,“ “10 Perfect Solutions to the 10 Biggest Business Mistakes?” Okay, maybe not that last one but “Perfect” seems to have become the standard for everything. It’s no wonder so many people feel like they’re failing at life on a daily basis. Just now, while I was procrastinating over what I am currently writing, I switched over to Facebook (I know, I know. I’m too old and it’s too over) and read this status update from Food & Wine:
“These mini strawberry-ricotta tartlets are perfect for summertime entertaining.”
See? Think of the message. Not only do I now feel the pressure to make the tartlets perfectly but I feel like a loser because I have no plans to entertain the 15 people required to eat the 16 perfect tartlets (one for me).
And here’s a challenge for you. Turn on the Food Network and count how many minutes it takes for Giada or Ina to pull a pan out of the oven and pronounce it, “Perfect!” Perfect is everywhere and has been so watered down through over-use that if anything is less than perfect, it’s seen as a failure. I worry when I watch Niece One draw a beautiful picture only to have her reject it because it isn’t “Perfect.” Where did she learn that? From any one of us.
I say “Perfect” all the time without thinking and I’m not psychologically unaware. I know what striving for perfection can do to a kid. Wait, I should make something clear. I think a lot of people assume that a person who bakes and is therefore someone who appreciates rules, guidelines, a script so to speak, is more likely to be a perfectionist than a person who cooks and whose savory culinary focus allows, no, encourages, improvisation. That is not the case with me. As much as I’m a rule follower, my thick streak of impatience trumps any potential perfectionistic tendencies. Hence why my cake decorating, pastry rolling, and plating skills are so lacking. I just want to get it done. Now.
However, I do have the habit of striving for perfect circumstances. Allow me to explain. After my sister and I went to Paris together I vowed the next time I visited the City of Lights I would be with a man. Not my brother or a friend, but rather, a “luvvah.” I mean, as much as I adore my sister, brother and friends, it would be nice to feel romantic in the most romantic city in the world. Cut to 17 years later and I haven’t been back to Paris. Not that I haven’t had any romances in the intervening years but circumstances never materialized (nothing like looking at your choices from the passenger seat) to take me back when I was an “us.” Because I didn’t feel the scenario was perfect, I’ve held myself back from an experience. Actually, many experiences.
It’s like that image we all have (or at least I have) of the ideal summer day. The humidity is low, (always about the hair), the sun is bright, the temperature is moderate, let’s say 76, I’m at the beach and here’s where I hit a snag. To go to the beach I have to take a little ferry which isn’t bad in and of itself. The problem is coordinating the time I feel like being on the beach with the schedule of the boat. Then I have to figure out if I’m packing lunch or going after lunch. And if I’m going after, will I exercise first thing in the morning? That means my breakfast will be a little later, which should work if I eat on the beach because I won’t be hungry till I get there anyway and the appropriate ferry will deposit me around 1:30. Are you still with me? I barely am and I’m not even at the beach yet. Then I want to get enough color to show I spent the day outside but not too much so that my dermatologist yells at my rapidly multiplying freckles. Then I need new music on my iPod so I don’t get bored. Oh, I wonder if Pandora works on the beach? But it might be nice to talk to someone too. Maybe I wrangle some people to join me. And then I hit my second snag. Because of the conflicting schedules of the various people with whom I spend summer weekends, my trip practically requires an alignment of the stars to be successful.
So I stay home.
And this is what I’ve been thinking about as I approach my birthday. It’s this weekend and again I have a hankering for strawberry-rhubarb pie. You may remember (read this if you feel like having a frame of reference) that last year my desire for a lobster roll/pie dinner was amended because of the Nieces’ bedtime and the length of the trip to the lobster/pie restaurant. We still had a nice celebration but my need for the pie did not relent over the next three months. So first I baked a strawberry rhubarb crostata, which while being good, was not the same feel as a double crust pie. Then we went to Briermere Farms and bought several pies, one of them the beloved strawberry-rhubarb. But I didn’t want to waste it on just any meal, I had to save it for the, you guessed it, perfect moment. Guess what? By the time I deemed my dinner perfect enough to pair with the pie, tiny fluffy white pillows of mold were blanketing the top of the fruit. The only thing to do was laugh, before I almost cried when I threw it into the disposal. I accepted my strawberry-rhubarb pie-less summer and moved on. Until now.
Now two factors conspired against this year’s desire for pie making. First, the store where I used to buy local strawberries/rhubarb in the town where I spend summer weekends has closed. (That’s a whole other story.) Second, with my new schedule I no longer arrive at the weekend house at my leisure. I won’t get there till dinner time on Friday and with only Saturday and Sunday to relax, play with the nieces, run and be feted on my big day, I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen making a pie that needs to bake for two hours and cool for much longer. So, rather than having a country-time pie bake, I bought the produce at the greenmarket near my apartment and made the pie in my tiny red kitchen.
Oh, there was one more thing chipping away at perfection. I just couldn’t bear the idea of making my own crust. I know it’s terrible but I cheated. Thank you, Trader Joe’s frozen crusts, for making last Sunday a little easier.
Anyway, I baked my favorite pie in less than ideal circumstances and the world didn’t fall apart. And I started thinking about the meaning of perfection. It can’t be so rigid that it doesn’t allow for reinterpretation or adapting to new circumstances. Sure, in what might be considered a perfect world I’d be cutting into a freshly baked pie surrounded by my loved ones this weekend in the country. Well, life isn’t perfect and now I’ll be schlepping the pie I made on Sunday on Friday when I head out to the house on the train. But I’m not going to take any moldy or schedule conflicting chances. I’m cutting a slice and eating it right now in my apartment.
And you know what? It’s perfect, enough—flaky crust, tart, sweet, fruity filling bursting with locally grown goodness. I think I’ll call my flexible perfection, the New Perfect.
But I’m still holding out on Paris.
New Perfect Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Adapted from Bon Appétit, April 1997
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1 ready-made, refrigerated double pie crust, thawed as per package's instructions.
3 1/2 cups 1/2-inch-thick slices trimmed rhubarb (1 1/2 pounds untrimmed)
1 16-ounce container strawberries, hulled, halved (about 3 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
water for brushing crust and sugar for sprinkling
DirectionsPreheat oven to 400°F, line rimmed baking sheet with foil and set aside. In a large bowl, combine rhubarb, strawberries, sugars, cornstarch and salt. Toss gently to combine.
Roll out 1 dough disk on floured work surface to 13-inch round.
Transfer to 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish.
Spoon filling into crust lined pie plate.
Roll out second dough disk on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round and lay it over the filling, press top and bottom crusts together and trim excess dough leaving 3/4-inch overhang,
fold crust under itself and crimp decoratively.
Lightly brush crust with water and sprinkle with about a teaspoon of sugar, transfer pie to baking sheet.
Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Bake pie until golden and filling thickens, about 1 hour 25 minutes.
Transfer pie to rack and cool completely.
Yield: 6-8 servings