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A purist believes that you must plunge your fingers into the flour and cold chunks of butter, carefully filtering for any pieces “larger than a pea.” This is commonly written into recipes, and I wonder, who has ever held a single pea? How did this become the counterweight, the orb that all pie makers must conjure? Peas come in congregations, crusty, frozen blocks that you dump into a microwave-safe bowl. If a straggler were to tumble, it wouldn’t be into my open hand. I might scrape it off the counter and let my terrier have it or sweep it straight into the garbage disposal. One icebox pea would be mealy and shrunken after the microwave, the texture of skin that’s been in a hot bath too long. Perhaps a fresh pea, plucked from a garden pod, would be more supple, but who among us can say that they’ve tenderly cradled a sun-ripened legume?
As you filter for the rounds of this unknowable bean, you are meant to locate the obvious outliers and flatten them. The warmth of your fingertips is hazardous to the integrity of the dough, so you should be quick about it, confident in your assessment. It is an intimate flick, passing the butter from your middle finger to your thumb in a limp snapping motion. The goal is not so much to minimize the chunk as it is to transform it into a shape that will be less likely to melt into a pool in the oven. Pastry chefs, recipe writers, and home bakers insist that there is something cosmic in this process. That golden, flaky crust can only be unlocked through physical caress. The metal blade of a pastry cutter, or worse, the jaws of a food processor, would hinder the communion with the materializing substance.
I prefer fellowship at an arm’s length, a dough that I can come to know without the burden of touch. A KitchenAid paddle attachment whirs through pats of butter with a consistent pirouette, and I know when to turn off the machine because I am not inexperienced. Of course, I have grazed something unfledged and sallow, and I have yielded to the transcendental belief that two ingredients can be kneaded into one. Just before the pastry starts to come together, coalescing from shaggy to smooth, there is a telling smell. The fat softens into the gluten. The aroma opens as a budding daffodil does. Kicked up by steel, the smell is quick and incidental, a peck on the cheek. It does not linger like a lover’s perfume. If I were submerged, wrist deep, I may not catch the fragrant waft at all.
Oregon East Magazine
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