Pie Five: Blueberry with cream cheese lattice top crust
Feb 14th, 2016 by alexfaye


blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice and sugar


the lattice was woven on a cardboard circle


the pie, fresh from the oven

This is the fanciest pie I have made to date.  I am feeling strangely confident.

I went out yesterday and purchased a food scale for baking; working on Pie Five merits a reward of some kind.  I also looked at rolling pins and baking cloths too, but snapped out of it and realized that for today, I only needed a legit food scale; I brought one home and proceeded to measure out everything in grams.

I relied entirely on the Spring Issue of Lucky Peach for the recipe and the technique, and the pie came out far beyond my wildest expectations.  [There’s a bunch of pie wisdom (Dana Cree and others) in that issue that I intend to explore more fully.]  But it is dawning on me that if I am patient and if I actually try, I can make these things that I’ve always assumed were beyond me.  I am learning to be in the moment as I work, and to be patient — to not rush to the finish line in the last moment, but to take my time.  There’s a tendency that I have to throw my hands up somewhere in the middle of the process and rush to the end.  I don’t know what is behind this.

So I am psychoanalyzing myself as I bake, which is lovely way to come to wholeness.  I get to think about these things, and then eat pie.  This pie is delicious.

Maddy wants me to try to bake a pie she saw on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives that features blueberries, lemon, basil and goat cheese.  So yes, I’m going to find that pie, and bake it.

Pie Four: Apple
Jan 19th, 2016 by alexfaye


Pie four is classic apple and it featured a delicious flaky crust (that simple butter crust that I’m starting to trust), with an organic Granny Smith apple filling.  It was tart!  I cooked the apples in lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg until the apples were soft; then I drained off the juice, and cooked the juice over a low heat with butter, until it reduced and caramelized a bit.  Maybe I was too impatient. Also, I think this pie still looks too light in color.  I want a golden brown, so to my eye this pie looks pale.  Maddy disagrees.  She says it looks right.

Another thing about this pie is that I did not adequately meld the top and the bottom together, so the top sort of lifted off.  And again, the edges…I don’t know how to make that beautiful fluted edge that my mom used to make with her fingers. She just did it, and like any magic trick that you live with day-in and day-out, it just seemed ordinary, so I didn’t pay attention.  SMH.  All those magical things that Evelyn did when I wasn’t looking or paying her any mind.  What I wouldn’t give for another year with my mom.

Pie Three: Chicken Pot Pie
Jan 2nd, 2016 by alexfaye

Pie is all about the crust.  I’m just trying to find the right crust recipe, and I think this may be it — three ingredients: flour, butter and ice water.  And next up in the skill department:  I need to learn to seal and crimp edges.  Still wondering about that uneven color (could it be my oven?), but this crust was flaky, delicious, light, and it did not rip.   I did use an egg wash on top.3843_10208208131942286_6089272668333749183_n

School is getting ready to start up again, and January — the end of first semester — is going to be hairy.  In addition, Erich and I have a writing deadline, and there’s SO MUCH grading to do, so it will be a while before I tackle Pie Four.

But 2016 is the year of many pies. #52pieproject   Tools that I want: interesting cookie cutters for decorative flourishes, and a good quality pastry brush.

Pie Two: Sausage, Kale, Acorn Squash Hand Pies
Jan 1st, 2016 by alexfaye

Happy New Year!

For Pie Two in my #52PieProject, I liberally modified a Martha Stewart recipe for the filling (and never again! Her site is plagued by advertising pop-ups — worse than most! and the recipe called for apples and raisins, which I just am not interested in trying), and then I used the very same recipe for the crust as I used for Pie One.

The result were these lovely little empañada-style pies — delicious and fun to eat.  I’d like to make more and freeze them.  They seem like the perfect lunch.  And I’ve found a new pie crust recipe that I cannot wait to try with tonight’s Chicken Pot Pie! Stay tuned.


Pie One: #52PieProject
Dec 30th, 2015 by alexfaye

All year I’ve been thinking that I am 57 years old, so it came as a bit of a jolt to realize that I am actually 58, and my pies still look like a child made them.  I am an adult woman, well into the second half.  I need to step up my pie game.

So this is the first in a series of pies I will bake on my way to casual competence. This was a gift pie I baked for my sister, VLC — Vicki Lee Coleman. I baked it on the day after Christmas, and somehow, we got into a fight that was triggered by a small thing (“please don’t take my picture when I’m eating dinner”) but ended up being about every thoughtless moment and every stupid thing I’ve done over the last four or five decades.  (She said she had a long list.)  My sister may not know where she put her car keys, but she does know that I did not call her that one time in 1999, and she may fling that oversight at me at any time.

This pie was created in peace and as it cooled, we raged.  We were too upset to eat dinner together, but over the course of the next hour or two, we eased ourselves to detente, and then sat down and had pie.
PieOneMy mind and emotions were whirling from the argument, but that first bite of pie with vanilla ice cream settled me into a sweet and lovely moment.  The warm berries and flaky crust called me back to my body, and it felt good.

I screwed around with this recipe, which calls for 9 tablespoons of fat — 4 butter and 5 shortening, and the other way around works also.  Higher butter content yields one thing; more shortening, another. I have read this; I do not have direct experience or knowledge.

I doubled the recipe to make top and bottom crusts, and because butter comes in 8 tablespoon sticks, I said to myself, OK, I need 16 tablespoons:  1 stick of butter and 8 tablespoons of shortening — I may have mathematically shorted the pastry 2 TBSPs of fat, I don’t think I did in actuality.  Cold shortening in a measuring spoon is mountainous.  The flavor and texture of the pie crust was delicious (I love a dry, flaky crust), but the dough did tear during rolling, and I had to patch it in several places.  About 15 minutes into baking, I applied a simple egg wash to try and shine up the top. I was envisioning a browner, glossier pie.

So: Would a little more fat make the crust more elastic (and therefore less likely to tear)? Is there something wrong with my rolling technique?  Why is the color uneven? Why isn’t the pie a bit more shiny?

Preparing the filling was a snap, and the pie held its shape after cutting.  The filling didn’t run out all over the pie pan.  I consulted a basic Food Network recipe for Cherry Pie, and here’s what I actually did: 2 cups frozen organic cherries, 1 cup frozen blackberries, 1 cup tart cherries, soaked in warm water and drained, all in the saucepan.  Whisked 1.5 cups of sugar and 4 TBSP cornstarch together, and added this dry mixture to the fruit in the saucepan, little by little. I ladled the filling into the pie crust with a slotted spoon, and ended up with about 6 ounces of leftover cherry-berry syrup, which I am saving for oatmeal or ice cream.  I did not overfill the bottom crust — there was still a bit of headspace when it was all said and done, and the top crust settled down nicely over the warm fruit.

As it was going into the oven, Maddy asked, “Did you put any herbs in there?”  That is an interesting question, isn’t it?  What would go well? Minced fresh basil? Mint?  Something lemony?

Next, I am going savory:  Pie Two:  Kale and Spinach Hand Pies for New Year’s Eve dinner.  And for New Year’s Day, Maddy’s favorite and a fitting way to begin the new year:  Chicken Pot Pie.

Nov 18th, 2015 by alexfaye

I always give the finger to anyone who blows their horn at me, even if they have a point.   It just seems like the right thing to do.  Horns lack subtlety of any kind, and even though the guy today may have been justified in blasting his big Dodge Ram horn at my little Toyota Matrix, I still felt I should flip him off, so I did.

The thing about teaching at a large public high school though is that the closer you are in proximity to the school in the morning, the more likely you know the person in the Dodge Ram.  Even more likely: they know you.

Teachers live in a fishbowl, and fish inside fishbowls should not give the finger to anyone. Or fin.  Fin You!

The morning is such a struggle.  I walk Hank, and we don’t even go that far.  I am always trying to leave earlier than I do, but I end up leaving right at 7:00, and even a little later.  That puts so much pressure on my commute up the 605 — nothing can go wrong.  And then I’m driving in with all the parents and kids, and I frequently end up practicing deep breathing to keep from losing my mind.  I walk in with my bags draped across my body (backpack, lunch bag, canvas sack of (untouched) work, purse) and open the door to the kids.  Bell rings, and it’s off to the races.

What would be better:  getting up much earlier, and walking Hank much farther, and leaving earlier, and getting to school earlier.  All of that would be better.

Most people need to sleep more.  I need to sleep more.  And people get better sleep and rest when they go to bed earlier than they do when they sleep in later. Just more time in bed does not necessarily mean more rest or better rest.  And they say that 7 hours of sleep is essential. (Essential.  I think we’re going to find out that all of this sleep deprivation we’ve taught ourselves to live with is just as bad as smoking.)

Here’s another thing they say: we should disconnect from screens at least an hour before bed.  It’s even better to disconnect TWO hours before bed.

So here’s the day as it SHOULD be.  I should hear my alarm at 5am, and get up the first time.

Because the other thing they say is that you should set your alarm a half hour earlier and get up the first time.  With this simple act, you teach yourself to overcome the fat, hairy resistance that sits between you and your higher purpose.  There are so many things that we want to do, but we never get started.  But we teach ourselves to do what is best by getting up the first time the alarm goes off.

So, it goes off at 5:00.

I should be clean already.
My lunch should be made.
My clothes should be pressed and ready to go.
I go out to the kitchen, drink lemon, honey and cayenne pepper on an empty stomach.
Then I should do a 10-minute work out, working towards the day that these are easy, and I need to add more strenuous exercise to that short routine.
By now, it’s 5:30.
Get dressed, pack up my bags, get everything staged for loading, eat oatmeal, and some lean protein. Maybe chop up a hard-boiled egg white and toss it into the oatmeal.
6:00 a.m., walk Hank for 30 minutes.
6:30 a.m. settle Hank in, and then leave.
Arrive at school at 7a.m. at the latest.
Why? No traffic.  No long line at the copy machine.  Quiet time in the classroom with the black journal, plan the day.
1:00 Lunch.  Get out of the classroom and seek the company of other adults.  Eat a healthy lunch. 
1:30 Drink a big coffee, and work (grading, planning, never ending email) until 4:00  [work hours:  8 hours]
4:00 Come home, drink a big water and eat a gigantic salad.
5:00 Hank time
6:30 Write, read, plan, work until 8:30. [2 hours]
8:30  Yoga mat
9:00  shower, prepare lunch, lay out clothes, journal, meditate.  Bed by 10.

The routine that I always thought to be so rigid, so inflexible, so SQUARE — look.  It’s actually the path to liberation.

Here’s some wisdom I’ve finally earned:  there is no time to waste.  I like to be flexible and you know, take a phone call now and then, but honestly, the day is busy.  The weeks fly by.  There are not enough hours to do everything that I want to do, everything that I should, and get my work done too.  Everything — the food, the exercise, the quiet time, the Hank time, the writing time, and reading time…all of that adds up.  And when I’m into a stack of papers, I can’t stop, can I?  It’s difficult.  When I’ve built up some momentum with a stack, I need to keep going.

If you have an answer, let me know.  Surely this is the path to sanity, but my feet do not seem able to stay upon it for long.

I snapped at that poor kid
Nov 4th, 2013 by alexfaye

It wasn’t terrible, but for me it was out of character.  My excuses are perfectly legitimate — I hate the question, I’m sleep deprived, and I’m defensive about this because the question (no, the answer) seems to imply I’m disinterested or incompetent.

The students turned in essays on Friday, and today is Monday;  the question this unsuspecting student asked was, “Are you finished reading the essays?”

And because I spent so much of my free time this past weekend working on grades — and it was a sunny, crisp fall weekend, perfect for golf, hiking, biking, maybe one of the last nice weekends in a while — and I am cranky from reading student work all of the time, like a martyr or a lunatic, I snapped.

“Are you kidding me!?  Do the math!  That would be impossible.  There are not enough hours in a weekend for me to take home a tall stack on Friday, and be done on Monday, AND get report cards in.”


He was taken aback by the ferocity of my answer.  (Kids have no idea.)  I turned on him like a cat whose tail has been stepped on.  He was apologetic, which made me see what a jerk I was.  Because what was this kid actually asking?

“Have you read my essay? Is it any good?”

And that, homies, is MY JOB.  My work is to give meaningful feedback so they can grow, and these papers I’ve collected are their personal statements, so they have bared their souls and are feeling nervous about it.  They want and need a gentle and helpful reader.  Someone who takes them seriously as a writer.  And although their peers have been all over those papers, what they really want, and what they really need…is me.

But I think that kid may be a bit wary of me from now on.  I apologized to him twice, but I feel like I damaged something.

This is what I spoke about at the October 10 School Board meeting.  I said to the board, “I have 175 students.  If I assigned one paragraph to all of my students, and if I took 4 minutes for each writing sample — to read it, analyze what’s working and what is not, then to write a terse and directive note, and a note of encouragement — it would take me over 11 hours to work through that stack.  So I can’t give that paragraph 4 minutes.  The best I can do is 40 seconds — and the only thing I can say to a kid in 40 seconds is Check! Plus! Minus!”

Not helpful to the writer.  Not a good use of my time.  Scoring in this way becomes nothing more than a bookkeeping task, when what kids actually need is feedback.  More than a grade, they need to know what to do next to improve.

And when would I put those 11 hours together to read those paragraphs?  During my paid work day?  Not possible.  I take my free time to do that work — time that other people spend doing things like, well, everything else that composes a good life.  Me? I need exercise and rest and time with my loved ones.  I don’t get enough of that vital stuff during the school year.  I also don’t take the 4 minutes that the kids need on that paragraph.  I cannot.  Because the next day, it’s something else.  There’s always something new to do.

And here, we’re talking about essays — not just paragraphs.  On an essay like this, I cannot give any kind of feedback in under 6 minutes.  Six minutes is fast reading, fast writing.  And, of course, I’m a veteran, so I would never assign (rarely assign) every student on my roster a paper that is due on the same day — even the same week!  Even so.  To get through these essays is going to take some time.

It is unreasonable to expect English teachers to see over 150 kids in a day.  It just is.  It’s not this kid’s fault.  And it’s not mine.

to the lady around the corner
Nov 1st, 2013 by alexfaye

I first noticed you maybe two years ago?  Maybe more?  You were so tall, so substantial — so wide!, and when you walked you swayed and swung your arms, sort of stiffly, like a metronome.  There, in the early morning light, as I passed you in the car on my way to work — I saw you that were wearing earbuds, striding down the street to your own private and steady rhythm, in the dark, in the rain, in the early morning — every day.

I saw you every day.

Soon, you were scenery.  I’d note your presence, but you did not occupy my thoughts.  I’d think, “Oh gosh, there’s that lady with the big butt.  Good for her.”

When I see you now, you are still tall, of course, but so slender,  still swaying when you walk but lately mostly running — a testament to patience, persistence and discipline.  Now when I pass you, I reflect on the lessons in your gait.

I often have thought of writing you a letter to tell you this  — I saw you one time, talking on your cell phone and getting out of a car on a driveway, so I’m pretty sure you live right around the corner from me — no more than 10 houses away.  But then I think, “she walks through the neighborhood with such a light step, with no self-consciousness about her.  What if she starts wondering who is watching her, who is writing her letters?  What if she starts peering into passing cars?” and I stop.  I’m sure I’d get the creeps if I thought my daily activities were being observed by a stranger and noted, no matter how benign the intentions.

So I’ll write to you here, on my blog.  You’ll never see it, most likely.  It’s for the best.

But you are one of my heroes, and every day that I pass you, I send out a little puff of love and respect.  Maybe you’ll run through the cloud I send, or maybe its particles will dissipate and float around, and a stray few will eventually settle on the top of your head and shoulders.  I hope so.  I hope when I drive by, you don’t know why, but suddenly your pace feels easy, and a renewed energy floods through you.



Straw Bale Gardening
Apr 3rd, 2013 by alexfaye

First Draft, Day One

So, I just went out to Bellflower Feed — very close to my school! — and purchased four bales of hay for $7 each.  Carlos helped me by throwing them into the bed of his pick up truck, just like a real cowboy.  My fancy Rossmoor neighbors with pools and landscaping and fake plastic front lawns might not like the look of this operation since there was loose hay blowing around on my driveway, and I just swept it into the street.  But I hustled the bales into the backyard, and now only I can see them.  And you, of course.  You can see them too.

Wenzel — my green thumb friend who always has a little something growing in the backyard — tried to warn me off of this course yesterday.  He and Bob saw a thing on Paula Dean a few years ago, and Wenzel reported struggling with the bales and getting very meager results.   Bob ran into Paula Dean later and asked, and she replied with that signature little accent, “Oh Honey, I just go do what they tell me to.  I don’t know anything about that stuff.”  But it doesn’t sound like they did any of the watering and feeding of the bale, so that’s what is going to happen first:  soaker hose on top for three straight days.  I have to make sure this is the configuration I want, because once those bales are wet, I will not be moving them.  They’re pretty heavy when dry.  Once they’re wet…forget it.

I plan to plant pumpkin, butternut squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and a bunch of herbs and flowers sticking out of the sides.  There will be room for inspiration to strike me.  Maybe one more tomato plant, maybe some more peppers.  I’ve already put three pepper varieties (Big Bomb, Hybrid Hottie, and AgCo Fire Green) into a big pot, and three tomato plants (Yellow Brandywine, Big Beef, and Sugar Lump) directly into the earth.

I’m going to consult with Smart Daughter Maddy about the layout.  I am thinking maybe I just want one long line, so that one side of the yard can be worked on, building new raised beds.  Once this garden project is over next winter, all of that straw will be good compost, so I want to put them down on the most awful part of the back…and I have; the bales on the left are covering a really icky part of the yard that mostly grows those swirly stickers.  In the summer, it hurts to walk barefoot over there.  I tried to kill the grass last summer, but it just came roaring back this past spring after the rains.   Eventually, I want several raised beds back there, with small pebbley walking paths between the beds, and a windmill, and a fountain, and a garden bench, and you know…a place to putter around growing stuff.  Bee and butterflies and fragrant things and edible things with little tinkling chimes and the sound of running water.  And a dog or two, scampering about, being scampish.

This whole straw bale gardening thing came to my attention on the airplane between Sacramento and Orange County.  Hallie Yopp of CSUF, a writer working on the framework, is trying this out, and when I got home, I looked it up.

Here’s the article in the New York Times.  Here’s the Facebook page with 23,708 “Likes”.  Here’s another source, and another one.  So if Paula Dean’s people would have just offered a little more background information, I feel like Wenzel would be with me, and not waving me off.  We’ll see.

NEW THOUGHT about the layout:  Whatever.  Function first, then aesthetics.  I lugged them into a perfect little four square configuration, much nicer than what’s pictured here.  There seems to be no consensus about “string up” or “string to the side.”  The bale is wider and more stable “string up,” but the string will get in the way of the growing plants.  I love spring break when this is the kind of thing I think about.

Cormac McCarthy on my mind
Mar 17th, 2013 by alexfaye

I am in the middle of several books, and really, no real reading can go forward until I finish Infinite Jest.  I have nearly every single book possible written by or about David Foster Wallace, and I’m working my way through.  I have a posthumous fangirl thing going on with him.  In addition, I belong to two book clubs.  The 2nd Thursday Book club (I refer to this one as ‘the real book club’) just finished This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, and has chosen Black Swan Green by David Mitchell for April.  The book club at work (not ‘a fake book club’ by any means, but younger, more fluid in its membership, and less regular in its meetings) is reading Gone Girl by I-don’t-even-know-who.  Welch?  Flynn.  It’s a bestseller.  Look it up.

Yesterday, I went to the 31st annual Literary Women conference in Long Beach.  And I was bowled over.  And I purchased books.  I have new heros:  Dana Spiotta, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Michelle Huneven, Charlotte Rogan, Amy Waldman.  I bought some books.  I downloaded others.

My professional reading is piling up: I’m re-reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my students; I’ve collected essays from kids, and the professional journals and emails pointing to web content are collecting on my actual and virtual desktops; loose pages, like the Fed-Ex packets of draft chapters from my work on the state framework committee, and binders of text to support our school’s accreditation work (WASC).  Did I mention the essays from kids?  Yes.  Those.  Hundreds.

Finally, a dear student from many years gone by has asked me to read her novel.  I read in snatches.  I can’t string together the requisite hours to give it a fair read.

And somehow, Blood Meridian has been speaking to me from the shelf.  Who knows why?  Clearly, I don’t have time to read Cormac McCarthy right now.  My real book club opted to read All the Pretty Horses for July, and not Blood Meridian, despite my suggestion — we have a friend who is a little more sensitive, and some things are just too harsh for her, so we often choose our books with this in mind — for example, The Road exemplified a terrible read for her:  too bleak, too dark, too violent. I wake up from sleep, drawn to Blood Meridian — a book known for its twisted violent vision — a book I’ve never read.

I can’t explain it, so I went and pulled it down from the shelf and opened to the middle.  Look at these sentences:

The judge knelt with his knife and cut the strap of the tigre-skin warbag the man carried and emptied it in the sand. It held an eyeshield made from a raven’s wing, a rosary of fruitseeds, a few gunflints, a handful of lead balls.  It also held a calculus or madstone from the inward parts of some beast and this the judge examined and pocketed.

And these, soon after:

They rode all day upon a pale gastine sparsely grown with saltbush and panicgrass.  In the evening they entrained upon a hollow ground that rang so roundly under the horses’ hooves that they stepped and sidled and rolled their eyes like circus animals and that night as they lay in that ground each heard, all heard, the dull boom of rock falling somewhere far below them in the awful darkness inside the world.

And just a few lines down:

The riders wore masks of boneblack smeared about their eyes and some had blacked the eyes of their horses.

warbag.  madstone. panicgrass.  boneblack.  pouring contents into sand.  the inward parts of a beast.  the awful darkness inside the world.  Holy shit, Cormac McCarthy.  That’s all I can say this morning.  I have things to do.  And I haven’t read your famous book.  Not yet.  But you’re working on me.  I don’t know why or how, but you’ve entered my head.

UPDATE:  Former student Marcus texted from college to tell me about a movie he saw and liked: Sunset Limited — based on a play by Cormac McCarthy.

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