Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mitered Corners

For many years, I have made napkins for friends and family members when occasions such as weddings or birthdays called for a gift. When we were first married and I had considerably more time than money, I regularly sifted through the remnant table at fabric stores looking for suitable material. Generally, I chose remnants that would produce at least two nice sized napkins to be part of a set of six or eight. If possible, this collection would be related by color or pattern. That someone might prefer a set of napkins that all looked alike never crossed my mind.

Through the years things changed including fabric. The advent of polyester in the seventies made finding nice 100% cotton cloth difficult. It also seemed that an emphasis in color over thread count came along as part of the craft movement. On my end, there was a realignment of resources. I now had more funds in my checking account than time on my clock. As a result, a soup pot frequently replaced a set of mismatched napkins as my standard wedding gift.

A few years ago I got back into the napkin making business. This shift was inspired by the discovery of a great fabric store in Saint Maries, the closest metropolis to our cabin in Idaho. Whether I am making curtains or mending jeans, the cabin is my favorite place to sew. My mother’s wonderful Bernina is there and the fact that when I am at the cabin, there aren’t really many other claims on my time, makes sewing over there a real delight.

Every summer I make a pilgrimage into Mrs. Sew and Sew in Saint Maries looking for fabric. Most of her customers are quilters and her inventory of high quality cloth is amazing. I get excited when I come upon a bolt that seems to have a friend’s name written on it. One such find featured a pattern of black berries that were nearly identical to my friend Coke’s china pattern.

Making napkins is not a particularly challenging undertaking. It pretty much requires cutting, pressing, and sewing in a straight line. At least, that is all it required until my friend Julie – and the word friend is used advisedly as you will see as this unfolds – told me about someone she knew who always mitered the corners on the napkins she made. Mitered corners – incredible! I could only imagine how impressive they might be.

Contemplating it, however, sent me into a tailspin. On the one hand, napkins with mitered corners would be something to really crow about. On the other hand, now that I knew better, what should I do about all of those “fold over corner” napkins I had blithely gifted in the past. Should I send out a recall notice? Maybe sneak into friends’ linen closets while their backs were turned and take them back? Suddenly, my little hobby had become a knotty moral quandary.

Even though I had never actually mitered anything before, I knew what a mitered corner should look like and felt confident that I could figure it out. Still, I found that visualizing the end product and sorting out how to get there was an exercise that taxed my spatial reasoning skills to the max. The most difficult part was calculating the angle and the number of stitches required to produce a folded corner that would lay flat once it was sewn. Folding - pressing-clipping – stitching – cursing! The results improved as I went along so that the final two or three were something I could actually be proud of. Still, it was a Sisyphean exercise every time I started on a new batch.

Everything changed for the better this summer when I engaged in a bit of “strategic whining” in the presence of a professional seamstress. After I explained my frustration to Loraine, she tore off a square of paper from a post it note pad and folded down two of the sides a quarter of an inch. Then she opened the paper back up and folded the corner of the square toward the middle, producing an isosceles triangle with side angles of 45 degrees. This triangle was clipped off along the base, and then folded toward the center one quarter of an inch. She refolded the sides along the original crease and then folded the paper a second time. Have I lost you? Very possibly as this is truly a case of pictures surpassing words. Trust me. The napkins produced using the pattern are the ones I have been dreaming about for years. It should come as no surprise that when not in use, I keep this pattern in my safety deposit box!

I experienced another one of these “mitered moments” the day before Thanksgiving when I was preparing to make the pies. The crusts, which I had mixed up the day before, were waiting to be rolled out in the fridge, four plump discs wrapped in waxed paper. As I placed the can of pumpkin and the two cans of evaporated milk next to the mixer, I glanced at Cook’s Illustrated which was open on the counter. Recklessly, I wondered if they had anything to say about pumpkin pie. Of course they did. If you have ever consulted Cook’s Illustrated you know that have something to say about just about everything culinary.

For starters they nattered on about the fact that the traditional method of preparing pumpkin pie invariably resulted in a soggy crust. Of course, I had to agree but since I’d never known anything different – my mother and grandmother and I all followed the directions on the Libby can – I didn’t consider it an issue. Well, it doesn’t have to be soggy and if you are willing to add the few extra steps required for prebaking the pie shell, you can serve up pumpkin pie with a crisp and flaky bottom.

Though it adds a little more time, this step isn’t all that complicated. It requires lining the crust with foil and weighting it to keep the crust from shrinking, then baking it for about fifteen minutes, then removing the foil and weights and baking the crust another ten minutes or so. Fussy as all this sounds, I was willing to go the extra mile because from my perspective, the crust is the pie. The filling is secondary at best. I have unapologetically served any number of runny berry or peach pies through the years, confident that the crust would carry the day.

Nonetheless, convinced as I was that the true test of the pie, or let’s be honest here, the pie maker, was the crust, I plunged ahead and considered their suggestions for the filling. Under their tutelage I heated the pumpkin puree in a sauce pan with brown sugar, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Once that concoction bubbled, I removed it from the heat and added the dairy. When I say “dairy” please note that we are now talking about heavy cream and whole milk. (Just take those cans of evaporated milk to the food bank.)Well beaten eggs are added last. Since I was more or less doubling the recipe, I ended up with seven large eggs!

Try as I might to follow their directions to the letter, I fell down when it came to “making sure to pour the filling into the pie shell while it is still hot!” My shell had cooled for about fifteen minutes before I got around to filling it. Obviously, those “laboratory cooks” don’t ever have to go to the bathroom, or answer the phone or throw the ball for a dog!

When I did pour the filling into the shell, there was considerably more pumpkin than the shells would accommodate. The directions contemplated this and calmly assured me this was nothing to worry about. Once the pies had baked for a “few” minutes in a 425 degree oven and the filling had begun to set up, I was directed to open the oven door, stick my head into that 425 degree oven (think Hansel and Gretel) and add the surplus to the partially baked pie. Well, as it turns out, I could also add it to the floor, the bottom of the oven, and my apron! Fortunately, I had put off doing the floors until after the pie preparation.

Of course, the seminal question floating out there is, does all this produce a better pie. Well, yes, damn it, it does! The crust is better – crisp and flaky and frankly, the filling tastes better as well. Of course, with whipping cream, whole milk and twice as many eggs, it should taste better – we are talking calories after all! Will I do it again next year? Need you ask? Of course I will. The obvious lessons that a more reasonable person might take away from all this, are lost on me. I am defenseless against the siren song that merely suggests that harder might be better; any assurance in black and white that it is so , and I’m a goner. Once you’ve mitered a corner, there is no turning back!