In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The piecrust Tower of Babel. From the bottom: plain, chocolate almond, rosemary, oatmeal, and mascarpone.
In the novel The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino (1923–1985), Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, a young man from a noble family, apple of his parents’ eyes, climbs a tree one night during dinner—because he is refusing to eat his dinner—and then never comes down for the rest of his life.
It’s a strong stance on a meal.
It’s also a strong stance on our world, “the world as it is,” as Calvino once wrote in a letter. The young baron retreats because he is revolted by the decadence, provincialism, militarism, stupidity, and corruption of his aristocratic family, who serve, among other things, as a stand-in for the Italian Communist Party. The writer fought alongside the Communist partisans as a young man in World War II (against the Fascists and the Nazis), an experience that shaped his worldview and ideals; at the time of the book’s writing, he had recently renounced his membership. The rejected dinner—a dish of snails served up by a mad sister—conveys, partially, his disgust for the revealed truths of Stalinism. In some cultures, snails are a delicacy, but these have come from a barrel of “clotted opaque slime, and colored snail excrement.” The sister also makes a “pâté of mouse liver,” and sets “locusts legs, the hard, serrated back ones” onto a cake “like a mosaic.” The worst dish is “a whole porcupine with all its spines” that “not even she wanted to taste.”
Calvino was not an autobiographical writer, and though he wrote that The Baron in the Trees is about “the problem of the intellectual’s political commitment at a time of shattered illusions,” the book’s political content is not its whole. It must also be read as an inquiry into intellectual independence, moral authenticity, and taking the high road.
My sour cherry meringue pie and my grapefruit chiffon pie both used whipped egg whites.
The baron finds joy swinging through the crowns of the trees and jumping from branch to branch, observing his world from above. He voraciously reads books, spins out theories, and amasses castles of knowledge and expertise. “Cosimo’s first days in the trees had no goals or plans but were dominated only by the desire to know and possess that kingdom of his,” Calvino writes. Cosimo’s pure pleasure in learning will resonate with many readers, as it does for me. More than just a renunciation of something bad, then, the move to the treetops is a search for the good. Cosimo has a “need to enter an element difficult to possess,” and once he’s there, his “eye embraced a horizon so wide it included everything.”
At first the losses also seem significant. Cosimo is ineffectual—his magnum opus, a Plan for the Establishment of an Ideal State Based in the Trees, is never finished—and his great love affair with a girl named Violante fizzles out. But in the penultimate chapter, which demands (humorously, in a work about intellectuals) that the reader be fluent in both French and Russian, the baron says, “Mais je fais une chose tout à fait bonne: vis dans les arbres.” To take a stab at the French: “But I have done one completely good thing: lived in the trees.”
Sour cherries are a favorite short-lived summer tree fruit.
We know that Calvino was suspicious both of religious paradise and of political utopias, so any “completely good” thing in his cosmology is significant. He didn’t believe in answers or endings, but in one of the two alternative endings of his best-known work, Invisible Cities, he offers another version of the same answer on how to live in “the world as it is”:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
It’s another way of saying, Climb into the treetops and work from there. Michael Wood, the editor of a recent volume of Calvino’s letters, notes that in the Italian, the word translated above as “apprehension” carries an even stronger connotation of “learning.” Calvino’s life was also a model for this approach. He worked for decades as an editor at the legendary Turin-based publisher Einaudi and is quoted as saying he’d spent more time on others’ books than on his own. His correspondence is a who’s who of the Italian thinkers, artists, and activists of his time. Letters begin, “Dear Antonioni,” “Dear Primo,” “Dear Natalia.”
To blind-bake a crust you line a pie plate with parchment paper and fill it with rice (as I did), beans, or pie weights.
I only recently read The Baron in the Trees—on the recommendation of a woman at a party whose girlfriend’s favorite book it is; such people are a special club—but I’ve long found the same sort of inspiration in the life of the mind in Calvino’s other works. In my favorite, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, “you,” a reader, are swept away on an endlessly confused and broken-off quest to find the manuscript of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, “Italo Calvino’s new novel,” as the book’s first sentence explains. Or perhaps “you” would prefer another book that has been accidentally substituted in its place? Each chapter ups the ante on the textual trickery while introducing a new, compellingly readable novel fragment with all-new characters and plots. What other writer has such riches to waste that they can invent and discard a novel per chapter? What other book pays such devoted attention to the form of books? Calvino’s ideas are purely exhilarating.
The hot sugar syrup needs to reach “soft-ball” stage in order to cook Italian meringue.
I must have been high on his genius, creativity, and playfulness when I attempted to climb into the trees myself and invent a series of Calvino-inspired pies, interlocking like the chapters of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and utilizing tree fruits and tree nuts from The Baron in the Trees. My plan also drew on a biographical note of Calvino’s: his parents were botanists, and his father pioneered the cultivation of exotic tree fruits in Italy, which made me feel that any tree fruit or nut was fair game. These high-concept pies would use new-to-me techniques such as chiffon, Italian meringue, chilled custard filling, blind-baked crusts, and pudding layers. I settled on the following menu of five, as seen in the photographs for this story: a sour cherry meringue pie with a nut-cookie crust; a tree-nut tart with apricots and mascarpone; a black-bottom peach pie with a mascarpone crust; an almond-cream pie with a chocolate crust; and a grapefruit chiffon pie with an almond-rosemary crust. Each of the pies would share an ingredient with the one preceding it, and the last, the grapefruit chiffon pie, would share sugar-whipped egg whites with the first, the sour cherry meringue pie.
It may already be apparent to the savvy reader that I had completely lost my mind. Previous successes in the kitchen have caused me to believe that my food mostly works out and that I can do anything with enough advance planning. As Calvino says about the mad sister who cooks the meals in The Baron in the Trees, “She had both diligence and imagination, prime talents of every cook.” I have those two qualities in spades. But while I have made five pies for a party before with no problem, they haven’t had multiple components, nor have they relied upon new techniques. None of my creations were inedible—they were all sweet, at least—but I had many difficulties. An ordinary lemon meringue pie consists of a curd filling and a topping of Italian meringue. I thought I’d try making a curd from sour cherries, which are tart like lemons, but the cherry flavor didn’t come through, and the taste was just strange. The first tree-nut-tart recipe I tried used egg and honey as a binding agent, which I should have known would be a problem, but it had the advantage of being something I could pour over a fancy arrangement of nuts, so I did it anyway. It was quiche-like and gross. My copy of The Flavor Bible says chocolate and peaches are good together, but the chocolate “black bottom” for my peach pie enhanced nothing. My almond-cream pie used almond extract for flavoring, which tasted synthetic. I also didn’t cook my pastry cream long enough, and that pie didn’t set. My grapefruit chiffon tasted pretty good, but the filling was not voluminous enough. And worst of all, for all my piecrusts I used variations on a base “nut cookie” recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Pie and Pastry Bible that wasn’t shapeable, didn’t look good, and tasted stale when baked. It was discouraging.
My crusts, like one of Calvino’s short story collections, were “difficult loves” (scraggly burned edges visible here).
Unlike the baron’s mad sister, I cannot bring myself to deliberately serve other people terrible food, so the recipes below have been adjusted (and even tested, somewhat) to offer up pies similar in spirit to my castles in the sky but hopefully better tasting. The most successful of these redos involved swapping the almond-cream pie on a brownie crust for a tarragon-cream pie on an Oreo crust, an invention of my own that actually worked. The photos will not be a perfect match, so consider this, dear reader, an experimental-fiction baking project where “you” enter the story as a creator in your own right. And consider our pies a work in progress, as the great writer says is true of the life of the mind.
Sour Cherry Meringue Pie
Piecrust requires at least three to four hours of chilling before being rolled out and baked. It is best made the day before baking and chilled overnight.
For the crust:
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tbs vegetable shortening
6 tbs unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 cup ice water (use less as necessary)
milk, for brushing
sugar, for sprinkling
For the sour cherry filling:
8 cups sour cherries, pitted
1 cup sugar
4 tbs cornstarch
pinch of salt
For the Italian meringue:
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbs water
4 large egg whites
cream of tartar
First, make the crust. The secret to a good piecrust is to keep all the ingredients cold. I pop the bowl back into the refrigerator to chill for a few minutes between each step. I also use a little bit of vegetable shortening in my crusts because it helps the baked crust to hold its shape and I don’t believe it detracts from flakiness or flavor (controversial, I know).
Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Pinch in the two tablespoons of vegetable shortening until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Cut in the butter using a pastry blender until semicombined, leaving many large pea-size chunks. Drizzle in about half the cold water, and stir. Using your hands and working as quickly as possible, crunch the crust to see if it will come together in a ball. If not, add more water by the tablespoon until it does. Wrap the dough in saran wrap, and chill for at least three hours and preferably overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400.
Make the filling. Combine the cherries, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a large bowl, and stir.
Remove the chilled pie dough from the refrigerator, and roll it out to about a quarter-inch thickness. Drape the crust over a nine-inch pie plate, and trim, leaving about an inch overhanging the edges. Chill in the freezer for five minutes. Remove the chilled crust, and fold the overhang under. Decoratively crimp the edges. Add the filling, and return the filled crust to the freezer for ten minutes. Brush the exposed crust edge with milk, sprinkle with sugar, set on a rimmed cookie sheet (to catch any juices before they drip onto the floor of your oven), and bake for fifty minutes to an hour, until the fruit has broken down and the filling is bubbling. If necessary, cover loosely with tinfoil about halfway through to prevent the crust from overbrowning. Remove and let cool while you prepare the meringue.
Make the Italian meringue. Ready a heatproof liquid measuring cup by the range. In a small, heavy saucepan, stir together the water and sugar until the sugar is moistened. Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup is bubbling. Stop stirring, and turn the heat down to the lowest setting. In a mixing bowl using the balloon-whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, and beat until stiff peaks form when the beater is raised slowly. Set aside. Increase the heat under the sugar syrup, and boil until a candy thermometer registers 236 degrees Fahrenheit (“soft-ball” stage). Pour the hot syrup into the liquid measure. Working as quickly as possible, pour a small amount of syrup over the egg whites with the mixer off. (This will avoid having the beaters spin the syrup onto the sides of the bowl.) Immediately beat at high speed for five seconds. Stop the mixer, and add a larger amount of syrup. Beat again at high speed. Add the remaining syrup, and beat until the outside of the bowl is no longer hot to the touch.
To finish, preheat the oven to broil. Scoop the meringue into a large plastic piping bag with a one-inch opening snipped off the end. Pipe the meringue in large teardrops over the surface of the cherry pie, then set under the broiler to brown, watching carefully since it can take less than a minute. Serve immediately.
Recipe adapted from The Splendid Table.
1 1/4 cups flour
3 tbs sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, cold and cubed
1 1/2 egg yolks blended with 1 1/2 tbs water
For the filling:
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup golden syrup (or honey)
2 tbs sugar
1 cup toasted, salted cashews
2/3 cup toasted, salted, chopped Brazil nuts
1/2 cup blanched whole almonds
1/3 cup salted, shelled pistachios
1/4 cup pecans, toasted
2 tbs heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
Make the pastry. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl, and whisk to combine. Add the butter, and pinch in with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Add the egg yolks, and stir to combine, then crunch with your hands until the mixture comes together in a ball. Wrap in saran wrap, and flatten into a disc. Chill for at least thirty minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400.
Butter an eleven-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough mixture evenly into the pan to a thickness of about an eighth of an inch, including up the sides and leaving a slight overhang. Refrigerate for thirty minutes.
Line the tart shell with parchment paper and fill with rice, beans, or pie weights. Place on a baking sheet. Bake for ten minutes, remove the weights, prick the dough all over with a fork, and bake for ten more minutes, until just starting to turn golden.
Make the filling. Reduce oven temperature to 350. In a small saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, golden syrup (or honey), and granulated sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring until the sugars dissolve. Increase the heat, and whisk until the mixture comes to a boil. Continue boiling until large bubbles form, about a minute. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the nuts and cream, and stir.
Pour the nut mixture into the tart shell, and spread out evenly. Bake for twenty minutes or until the filling bubbles. When the tart has cooled, use a serrated knife to trim off the overhang of extra pastry, then release it from the tart mold, and serve.
White Chocolate Peach Tart
Start this pie the day before you plan to serve it. The pudding and topping should be chilled overnight. The tart crust can be blind-baked the evening before. The tart also requires three to four hours of additional chilling after assembly.
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tbs vegetable shortening
6 tbs unsalted butter, cubed
an egg, beaten
For the white chocolate:
2 tbs sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp cornstarch
an egg yolk
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup white chocolate chips
1/8 tsp vanilla
For the filling:
6 large ripe peaches, sliced
3/4 cup sugar
4 tbs cornstarch
1/2 tsp flaky salt (e.g., Maldon)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
First, make the crust. Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Pinch in the two tablespoons of vegetable shortening until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Cut in the butter using a pastry blender. Add the egg, and stir. Using your hands and working as quickly as possible, crunch the crust to see if it will come together in a ball. If not, add more water by the teaspoon until it does. Wrap the dough in saran wrap, and chill for thirty minutes.
Make the pudding layer. Combine sugar, cornstarch, and egg yolk in a small pan, and whisk until combined. Add the milk slowly, whisking. Set the pan over medium-high heat, and cook until thickened, whisking constantly. Continue cooking until the mixture looks stodgy and no longer wobbly. Pour into a heatproof bowl, and set aside.
Put the white chocolate into a double boiler (or a glass bowl set over, but not touching, a pot of boiling water), and melt, stirring occasionally with a dry spoon. Add melted white chocolate and an eighth of a teaspoon of vanilla to the pudding mixture, and stir to combine. Set aside to chill, at least six hours and preferably overnight.
Make the filling. Combine peaches, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan, and simmer fifteen minutes until the peaches are bubbling and collapsed and the mixture has thickened. Chill overnight.
Blind-bake the tart shell. Preheat the oven to 400. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator, and roll it out to about a quarter-inch thickness. Drape it over an eleven-inch tart pan with a loose bottom, leaving some overhang. Press the crust firmly into the bottom and sides of the pan, and build up the overhang so the shell has room to shrink. Chill in the freezer for five minutes. Line with parchment paper, and fill with rice, beans, or pie weights, and bake for ten minutes. Remove the pie weights, prick the crust all over with a fork, and bake ten more minutes or until starting to turn golden. Set aside to cool.
To assemble, spread the cooled pudding on the base of the tart shell, top with peaches, and chill at least three hours before serving.
Tarragon-Cream Pie with Oreo Crust
This pie requires chilling for at least six hours and preferably overnight.
For the Oreo crust:
4 tbs unsalted butter, melted
1/2 tsp kosher salt
For the tarragon custard:
1/2 cup sugar
3 tbs cornstarch
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups whole milk
6 egg yolks
2 tbs unsalted butter, cubed
1 tsp vanilla
a bunch of tarragon, about 1 cup, not chopped
For the topping:
2 cups heavy cream
2 tbs sugar
To make the crust, preheat the oven to 350. Pulse the Oreos in a food processor (or pound them with a mortar and pestle) until fine crumbs form. Add the melted butter and salt, and stir to combine. Press the crumbs evenly along the bottom and up the sides of a nine-inch pie plate. Bake until fragrant, about twelve minutes.
To make the filling, set a sieve and a medium bowl next to the stove. In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add the egg yolks, and whisk to combine. Add the milk in a slow stream, continuing to whisk. Add the tarragon. Set the pan over medium-high heat, and stir until the mixture has thickened and come to a low boil, about eight minutes. Remove the tarragon. (Don’t worry if you don’t get all of it; you’ll be sieving the mixture later.) Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is stodgy. Don’t stop while it’s still wobbly or the pie will not set. Remove from heat, and scrape out into the sieve using a rubber spatula. Press the mixture through the sieve. Let cool.
Pour the filling into the prepared piecrust, and chill overnight.
Just prior to serving, whip two cups of cream with two tablespoons of sugar and a quarter teaspoon of vanilla until distinct peaks form. (If you’re using a mixer, be careful not to not overwhip. I use a whisk, which makes overwhipping more difficult.) Top the pie with the whipped cream, and serve.
Frozen Grapefruit Chiffon Pie with Gingersnap Crust
2 1/2 cups gingersnaps
4 tbs unsalted butter, melted
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp rosemary, very finely minced
2 grapefruits, zested and juiced
4 eggs, with yolks and whites separated
1 cup sugar, divided
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/3 cups heavy cream
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
To make the crust, preheat the oven to 350. Blitz the gingersnaps in a food processor (or use a mortar and pestle) until fine crumbs form. Add the butter, salt, and rosemary, and stir to combine. Press the mixture evenly along the bottom and up the sides of a nine-inch pie plate. Bake for twelve minutes, until toasted and fragrant. Set aside to cool.
To make the filling, bring the grapefruit juice to a boil and cook, uncovered, about twenty minutes, until reduced to about three tablespoons of liquid.
Set a sieve and a medium bowl next to the stove. In a double boiler (or a glass dish suspended over boiling water), stir together the four egg yolks, the salt, half a cup of the sugar, and the grapefruit reduction. Heat the mixture, stirring constantly, till just below the boiling point. The mixture will thicken, and steam will begin to appear. It should leave a well-defined track when a finger is run across the back of the mixing spoon. Remove from heat and push through the strainer with a rubber spatula. Add the grapefruit zest, stir, and chill.
Whip the cream until distinct peaks form. Combine the cream with the chilled grapefruit mixture.
To make the meringue, whip the egg whites on low speed until foamy, then add the cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium, and whip until soft peaks form. Add a tablespoon of the remaining sugar, increase the speed to high, and continue whipping, adding sugar gradually until it is all incorporated and the mixture is glossy and stiff.
Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture, gently but thoroughly. Mound the filling into the prepared crust, making decorative swirls with the spatula, and freeze for at least six hours or preferably overnight.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.
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