Me and Martha

People are always amazed to learn that I can cook. I suppose their astonishment is due in large part to my otherwise pronounced lack of domestication (or as one friend put it, “You’re not completely housebroke”). Cleaning and decorating don’t hold a whole lot of appeal, but I do like my food. When you live an hour from the nearest restaurant, the only reliable method of procuring good food is to make it yourself. Starting a batch of dinner rolls was also an excellent way of getting out of doing the farming when I was growing up. Therefore, I cook.

There was a time in my life when the more complicated the recipe, the more hog-happy I was destroying my kitchen in the process of creating it. I scraped vanilla beans, grated real nutmeg, insisted on only fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Yes, I admit it. I worshiped at the Martha Stewart altar.

My grandmother was equally enamored of fancy schmancy cooking, especially pies, so in 1985 I bought her this as a gift:

Martha was quite a fresh-faced young tart herself back in those days, wasn’t she? Then again, weren’t we all? Those of you who were actually born then, I mean. Anyway, my grandmother being the tightly laced little Englishwoman that she was, every gift she ever got was labeled with the name of the giver and returned to them when she died. Hence, I now own this lovely book.

When I first inherited it we lived in Oregon, six hundred feet above sea level, and I, the devoted acolyte, heeded Martha’s every word, gleefully thickening my custards in my double boiler. Then we moved back to the ranch. Which, as some of you might know, hovers at a tad under mile high. I decided to make a delightful lemon meringue. After an hour of stirring with no hint of coagulation in sight, I finally realized the problem.

At high altitude, boiling water doesn’t get hot enough to thicken custard.

Since I had also acquired a child in the meantime, I quickly learned to simplify and adapt, and nowadays I boil my custard on the stove and dump my vanilla and lemon juice out of a bottle like a proper ranch woman (yeah, ol’ Martha’s probably birthin’ a heifer** as I write this).

Honestly? I can’t really tell the difference. And of all the convoluted recipes in the book, the one I make the most often, and the one that’s always the biggest hit, is possibly the easiest pie I’ve ever made.

I wasn’t able to find the exact recipe online, but if you take this one, use white sugar, add four eggs instead of the three plus yolks, 1/2 cup of butter instead of six tablespoons and 1 cup instead of 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, you’re there. Oh, yeah, and a tablespoon of lemon juice, only a pinch of nutmeg, no cinnamon. Whip it up with a whisk, dump it into an unbaked pie shell and bake at 350 degrees until it doesn’t wiggle when you shake it.

Presto! An awesome custard pie with none of the boiling and stirring.

Or you could go here and buy a copy of this gorgeous book, then make your very own Fudge Tarts with Creme Anglaise. Believe me, totally worth the work.

Now, I gotta go. My little sweetie pies are calling my name.

Buttermilk Tarts and Black Bottom Tarts (highly recommend making them with Irish cream instead of rum). For the ultimate in easy, we pick up these pre-made tart shells in Canada, only available at the holidays when butter tarts are pretty much mandatory on every table in Alberta. 

Kari Lynn Dell- Montana for Real

 **For you non-rural types, that’s another way of saying “Havin’ a cow.”