Monday, October 27, 2008

The Mystery of the Visible

A response to Will Buckingham's post, Dragons and Levitating Monks.

The first point about Will's post is that his examples are asymmetrical.

Presumably, the Indian restaurant owner and his wife actually believed the monk could levitate. The example provided by Sagan, an atheist and debunker of irrational belief, was created to demonstrate such beliefs can always be placed beyond the reach of empirical proof. The true parallel of the levitating monk, for Western religions such as Christianity, would be things like belief in the ability of saints to perform miracles, divine intervention by God in medical cases as a result of prayer, possibly even a McCain victory in the upcoming U.S. presidential election (surely a subject of much prayer among a certain segment of U.S. Christians).

The second point is that what these examples illustrate is a wide-spread desire for the miraculous, however that might manifest itself. A significant component of such desires is the validation of religious beliefs. This demonstrates a lack of faith, rather than what one might suppose to be a demonstration of it. Faith, after all, requires no proof.

A final point is that we are surrounded by the miraculous. Our very existence is itself a miracle. It is human nature, I suppose, to become accustomed to what we experience constantly and to lose sight of the wonder plainly manifested to us. As Oscar Wilde expressed it: "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

A deeper, more enriched spirituality is available to anyone who wishes to pursue it by rousing themselves from the illusion that our common, every day experiences are nothing special.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pumpkin Pie

After a somewhat lengthy hiatus, I am finally making an actual blog post (as opposed to a book quote addition, which, in my view, is more or less cheating and shouldn't be counted as a legitimate post!). I've been somewhat inspired by two of my favorite bloggers, who have also taken up the keyboard again in recent weeks -- Diana Sudyka on her Tiny Avery and Eloise by the Book Piles, who I turn to when I feel particularly guilty about adding more books to our already sizable collection that sprawls across every floor of our three story house. Four, if you want to count the basement, my workshop, where my wood working and other shop books go. Eloise's most recent post discusses books she found still in the shopping bags she carried them home in. What an inspiration! :-)

So what about pumpkin pie? On a recent visit to Sunshine Flowers, now our favorite source for plants of all sorts for the yard, I was picking out several pumpkins for Jack O Lanterns when I noticed a box of "pie" pumpkins. Pie pumpkins? A long standing tradition in the Miles family holds that trying to cook real pumpkin for a pie is a total waste of time. This tradition got its start when my mother and grandmother (my grandparents operated a boarding house in midtown Kansas City many years ago) decided to bake a pumpkin pie from real pumpkin. One of their lodgers raved about how delicious pumpkin pies were when made from fresh pumpkin. They spent most of the day doing battle with a fresh pumpkin, made an unholy mess, and finally threw the whole thing in the trash and used canned pumpkin for the pie. Predictably, the fresh pumpkin pie fancier raved about how delicious their pie was, and how much better than it would have been made from a can...

The thought which crossed my mind at Sunshine Flowers was that mother and grandmother, who were not necessarily the most diligent when it came to culinary research, probably used a standard carving pumpkin for their pie. A no-no, as it turns out. I bought two of the pie pumpkins. They are much smaller than pumpkins used for carving, about 8-inches in diameter, and have a much better consistency and taste than their larger cousins. After getting them home, I rooted around in our cookbook collection until I found what I wanted in Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. I'm pleased to report that cooking pumpkin is every bit as simple as the title of Waters' book suggests and the result truly is far better than canned pumpkin. I must also add I was totally disappointed by Cooks Illustrated: why "America's Test Kitchen" has chosen to cop out on cooking pumpkin is something I find hard to understand. Perhaps they will eventually make amends.

1. Cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise. Be careful when doing this not to let the knife slip. You need a very solid cutting surface. This is actually the trickiest part of the whole process.

2. Scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp with a large spoon. I have read that an ice cream scoop is good for this, but had little success with that approach. A large spoon with its sharper edge proved much more effective. Don't worry about getting every last bit of the stringy pulp out, just get most of it.

3. Spray a rimmed cookie sheet or baking pan with PAM or a similar cooking spray (you might want to line the sheet first with aluminum foil for easier clean-up). Put the pumpkin, cut sides down, on the sheet and bake in a 375 degree oven for around 45 minutes until the pumpkin is soft to the touch. Cooking time can very depending on the pumpkin. Denser, heavier pumpkins take a bit longer but actually have a better flavor -- something to keep in mind when selecting them.

4. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and let cool. Once cooled, flip the pumpkin halves over and scoop the cooked pumpkin out of the shell. This is quite easy to do -- the shells are strong and the cooked pumpkin is soft and easy to scrape out. Toss the shells. (Some people advise saving the seeds for toasting, etc. I tried this once. Life is too short for that sort of headache!)

5. Puree the cooked pumpkin in a food processor until it is smooth.

That's all there is to it. Aside from cooking, the whole process takes minimal time. Maybe a total of fifteen minutes. It is almost absurdly easy, to be honest.

Here is my pie recipe, which I modified somewhat from Alice Waters' version, which has a frighteningly small amount of sugar and actually calls for black pepper. Why do this to a pie???

You'll need one pre-baked pie shell. I feel guilty about not making my own pie pastry (something I intend to experiment with sooner or later), but, honestly, Pillsbury pie dough is SO easy and it tastes great! I got the idea of pre-baking the shell from Waters. Previously, I baked pumpkin pies in an unbaked pie shell. Pre-baked makes for a much better pie.

1 cup of heavy cream
2 tsp flour

Mix the flour with 1/4 cup of the heavy cream and bring to a gentle boil over moderately low heat. When the cream thickens, slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup and bring it back to a gentle boil. Remove from heat and let cool.

1.5 cups of pumpkin (the typical pie pumpkin yields about 3 cups of cooked pumpkin)
3 eggs

Whisk the eggs in a large bowel and then mix in the pumpkin. Mix in the cream.

1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp kosher salt

The salt is VERY important. Waters' recipe doesn't include it, but adding salt really brings out a lot of flavor and adds depth to the pumpkin. Don't use regular table salt, which is iodized. Use kosher. In fact, kosher (or sea) salt should always be used for cooking.

Mix the sugar and spices together in a small bowl, then mix with remaining ingredients.

Add 1.5 tsp of brandy to the pie filling and mix in. This is optional in the Waters recipe, but not in mine. :-)

Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes. Check the pie after about 35 minutes. Remove it from the oven when the center is just set. Don't over cook your pie! I like to use foil edge protectors to keep the crust from browning too much. It's best to put these on initially, and then remove after the first 30 minutes.

The result should look something like this.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Literary Labyrinth

Finally, when phonetic writing prevailed, the sounds of words were represented at first in syllables, and later, in a further refinement, by alphabetical symbols or letters standing for the phonemes -- the vowel and consonant sounds -- that make up our words. Now we had a graphic counterpart of speech itself. We could represent and pass on to others in an enduring way the realities that we observed and discovered within and without for their inspection and introspection. To our point, we could express our selves and learn about the selves of others beyond the limits of time and space that constrain the spoken word.

Nancy M. Malone
Walking a Literary Labyrinth:
A Spirituality of Reading