Once upon a time, I read. Books. Lots of books. Books which weren't made entirely of cardboard. Books with a font size South of 22; with characters whose names weren't Spot, Wilbur or Onceler; with plots which only rarely began Once upon a time...
This time began in 2001, and ended, technically, in July of '04. I know this because I've a 3"x6" black notebook in which I wrote titles, authors, dates. The entries number 395.
395 books. In four and a half years. (I can't believe it, either.) What happened, during that brief book-hungry period, was that I had a baby. Who didn't sleep. Not long, anyway. Not alone, anyway. And so, we tag-teamed: he slept, I read. Apparently, rather a lot. This arrangement worked well, for several years, and as a side-benefit, seriously broadened my cultural horizons.
(New parents, take note: He now sleeps through the night! Has for a good decade, actually. It happens. It really does. Those truculent stubborn resistent non-sleepers finally, eventually learn! Even the ones who wake up every hour. Twice an hour. All. Night. Long. For four years. I speak from experience. So rest easy. Or at least, grab a book, and enjoy your non-rest.)
And then, I fell off a cliff. Or contracted amnesia. Or both. Or so it would seem, to any crack historian, examining the written record, which ends abruptly and absolutely after #395 (Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs, 7/04). The truth is a little less soap opera.
The truth is, I had another baby. And, moments later, a third. (That is how it seemed to me, anyway, during those soggy, semi-conscious, chief-of-tiny-human-beans years. There's a bit of the Rip Van Winkle to parenting, which I know I've referred to before. But it manifests a little differently in the area of books and TV and culture. Like: Last decade? Don't ask. Didn't happen.) Any parent of one knows that your first child complicates every last aspect of your life. (In good ways! But still.) Any parent of two (or three or five) knows that those one-child days were stupid-simple. Translation: Naps never overlapped. Days were longer. Nights, shorter. Books? What's a book?
To wit: last month, I realized Anne LaMott had published some four books while I wasn't looking. I was stunned that anyone, even LaMott, could churn out four books in, like, two months. Until I dug deeper and discovered my last "new" LaMott title was published in 2006. Seeing as math was always my best subject, I must here confess that two months cannot, no matter which way you work them, equal eight years. This pains me (the math and abyss, both). You can help ease my suffering by letting me know if you've read anything good, lately. Since 2000, say. I know nothing. (Comments are open!)
What's weird is that, for years after 2004, after that fateful #395, I continued to think of myself as a reader. I wrote down titles of interest. Checked out promising new releases. Borrowed books recommended by friends. Sometimes, I even started them. Occasionally, I made it to page 29. Rarely past. Wrong life phase.
This went on for years, my identity screaming Reader!; my reality, Serial Book Abandoner! My book aspirations squared with my days about as well as my cafe-managing college self squared with my high school jeans. (I.e., Not at all. Free bagels. College budget. Bad combination.)
At least not at all in the multi-syllabic, paper-paged, non-hippo-starring book department. Because of course, I was reading all the time, just a different sort of content. Out with the Stegner, in with the Seuss! Adios Kingsolver, hola Rylant! Berry, Godwin, Huxley: move it, and make way for Silverstein, Jeffers, Eager....
Reading didn't fade. It just shifted. Substantially. Semi-permanently. And once I reached a 16-hour-day's end, I had little energy and less interest for anything lacking an A-B rhyme scheme. My days were already filled with plot, climax, plenty of conflict, darling protagonists. Not to mention character development, galore. I was busy living life. I had no time left to read about it.
But I missed the cameraderie of books. The second opinion. The frame of reference. The tuning fork of well-honed fiction, and its ability isolate right notes, pure and true. The kind ear attuned to the miniscule emergencies and insignificant crises of a mundane life. The way one excellent adjective, one elegiac arc of prose, assigns honor to the rips and rumples of a day. The presence of semi-colons. The absence of talking pigs.
By the end of 2012, I realized I'd better resolve my way out. That, or donate all my Shakespeare to charity and take out a lifetime National Enquirer subscription. So as I drew up my 2013 resolutions—bake more cakes! get more sleep! break no legs!—I added one around reading. Viz: a book a month. (I can't believe it, either.)
It was a low blow, arriving at that low, low number, and then (ouch) writing it down. The stark honesty of that paltry twelve was humiliating. And ambitious. It had, after all, been a decade since I'd seen similar levels.
So I lowered the bar still further. Kids books would count, as long as there were chapters, and as long as I read them on my own recognizance. (Tell me you do this, too? Stay up late, reading Roald Dahl? To yourself? And that you, too, find "children's" books among the the best out there, anywhere?) Also, I cheated. Well, technically, back-dated. That little broken leg business seemed the perfect time to 'pre-launch' New Years' Resolutions. So I grabbed From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler on my way out the door, post-break, pre-surgery, figuring on a few sleepless nights. I also figured I needed all the headwinds and handicaps I could get.
I figured right, on both counts. I finished the first half while folded into my "comfort" vinyl window ledge hospital "bed". The balance, I completed in the actual New Year. In late February. Behind, already, handicaps notwithstanding.
But that one finished book led to another, and another, and (halt, stop, start) another, the way these things imperfectly do. Progress was neither steady nor smooth, with weeks going by and nothing to show. But then, I'd spot Wild at the library, say, and bring it home, and begin it, and fed by that first small victory, not to mention Strayed's raw voice and more-raw life, actually continue. Bit by bit. Here and there. Until I couldn't help but keep on, caught up in the thrum and rush of the thing. Until I couldn't help but finish, the grit under my eyelids nothing next to the catch in my breath, the clench in my fist. I'd missed that, too. The rare narrative's magnetic pull. The fierce momentum of a tale, well-told.
It was just so good to be back. Good enough to knock out a dozen and then some, though in truth, I lost track mid-year, more caught up in the reading than the counting. It wasn't until I cleared off my nightstand in January that I tallied: 31 books. Not the 100+ of my heyday. And at least ten, intended for the ten-and-under set. But more than twice-twelve. Not bad. And better? I paged through so much extraordinary—This. This. This. Definitely this. Absolutely this.—that I promptly re-upped my resolution, this year.
At the moment, I'm reading The Goldfinch, which I recommend, with real reservations. If you like a plot that swallows you whole; a reality so vivid you move right in; characters so fraught with flaws and truth that you can no more bear to watch than turn away; tack-sharp language; intimate scale; epic scope; then: yes. If, however, you value sleep, or functioning during daylight hours, or keeping your reading in tidy slots of under, say, seven hours? Don't even start. You won't stand a chance. No more, anyway, than you'll stand when faced with Tom Douglas' coconut cream pie.
We made this one, here, two Fridays back, to celebrate pi day. It's the third or fourth time I've made this pie, and every time, I mean to make note. Because hoo-boy, is it noteworthy. If you live in Seattle, or outside of Seattle, or within, say, 900 miles of Seattle, you've likely at least heard of this pie. It's a pie with a bit of a reputation, famous around town, and deservedly so. I am tempted to say you'll have eaten this pie, too, since Douglas reports in The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook that they've sold no fewer than 345,290 (!!) of these pies. Assuming eight slices per? We're talking more than enough for every Puget Sound-area man, woman and child. How I ate not one wedge in my thirty-six Seattle years, I cannot explain. I'm doing my best to make up for lost time.
It's time (and pie) well worth making up. The burnished all-butter crust, tweedy with coconut, blind-baked to pitch-perfect. The sunny smooth wobble of coconut custard, soft enough to eat with a spoon, firm enough to (mostly) respect the slice. The barely-sweet crown of whipping cream that's as over the top as it is essential. The perfect storm that is all three together, tender-crisp, cool unctuous, cloudy billow. I keep toying with the notion bittersweet ganache, slipped between custard and crust. I've little doubt it would be a sock-knocker. But I've not gone so far myself, and mention it with real reservations, as the pie as is is pretty well perfect, and it's already almost impossible to stop. Sort of like a certain book I know. Speaking of which! 'Bye. I've got another all-nighter to pull.
Tom Douglas' Triple Coconut Cream Pie
gently adapted from The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook
This pie is ideal for gatherings, keyed as it is to advance prep. Unlike a fruit pie, which is best served a few hours out of the oven, warm and sighing, the crust and custard must be made and cooled before assembly (take note). I love this about it, as all parts can be made a day (or more) ahead, then simply assembled, at the last. Crust dough can be made and refrigerated up to 4 days in advance; filling, up to 2 days in advance. Assemble the pie and whip the cream within 6 hours of serving.
I have tweaked salt quantities, and ommitted the white chocolate shavings, originally showered over the top, and to my taste, too sweet. Also: Douglas lines the unbaked crust with parchment and beans, as all good bakers do, to avoid puffing. I'm not a good baker, and so bake it unlined, poking a few fork holes if needed (it rarely is). If you choose to line, remove the weights at the 20 minute mark, and return to the oven 10-12 minutes. Otherwise, this is a grateful homage to Tom Douglas' outstanding original.
Coconut Pastry Crust
1 cup + 2 Tbs. (165 grams) unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup shredded, sweetened coconut
1/2 cup cold, salted butter, cut into 1/2" dice
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup ice-cold water, or as needed
Fill a 1-cup measure with ice cubes, then pour good drinking water over. Set aside to chill, 10 minutes.
In the bowl of a food processer, combine flour, coconut, butter, sugar and salt. Pulse just until coarse crumbs form. Add ice-cold water, 1 Tablespoon at a time, pulsing briefly between additions. Use only enough water for dough to hold together when pressed with thumbs, 3-6 Tablespoons. Dough will not yet clump or ball, without pressing.
Place a large sheet of plastic wrap on the counter and scrape dough onto plastic. Pull the plastic wrap around the dough, pressing it into a 1/2" disc as you go. Chill 60 minutes, or up to 4 days, well-wrapped, before rolling.
To roll, have a clean surface ready, and dust lightly with flour. Unwrap your dough round, center dough on the floured surface, sprinkle top of dough lightly with flour, and roll gently and firmly into 13-14" round, roughly 1/8" thick. Rotate dough in 1/4 turns as you roll, re-flouring under and over dough, as needed, to keep from sticking. Run a flat frosting knife or bench scraper underneath, if needed, to keep from sticking. Once dough is roughly the right size, fold in half, then in half the opposite direction (in quarters), then lift onto a pie plate (glass, ideally), centering point in the middle. Unfold crust, adjust to center it in the plate, turn excess dough under rim, and flute edges between thumb and forefinger.
Chill the unbaked crust at least an hour. (This prevents shrinking. In all honesty: I often skip this. See bad baker, above.)
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400°. Bake 25 minutes, or until edges are a rich gold, and bottom is just beginning to turn color. Remove and allow shell to cool completely before filling, at least 2 hours.
Coconut Custard (Pastry Cream)
1 cup milk
1 cup canned, unsweetened coconut milk (full-fat, well-shaken)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups shredded, sweetened coconut
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 large eggs
1/2 cup + 2 Tbs. granulated sugar
3 Tbs. unbleached, all-purpose flour
4 Tbs. salted butter, room temperature
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add milk, coconut milk, salt, and shredded coconut. With the tip of a paring knife, work the seeds from the vanilla bean, then add both the empty pod and scrapings to the pot. Heat the contents over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is steaming, with tiny bubbles gathering at the edges, just before the boil. Remove from heat.
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar and flour until thoroughly combined. Temper eggs by pouring a splash of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking steadily. Add another splash, and mix again. Repeat once more. Finally, add your warmed egg mixture to the saucepan. Return to medium-high heat, whisking steadily, until pastry cream thickens and begins to bubble. Continue to whisk until mixture is quite thick, 4-5 minutes, adjusting heat if necessary to prevent burning. Remove saucepan from heat, and add butter, whisking until it melts. Remove vanilla pod (rinse, dry, and place in your sugar bin for vanilla sugar!). Scrape custard from pan into a medium bowl, smooth surface, cover with plastic wrap, and smooth wrap over surface, to prevent skin from forming. Refrigerate until completely cold, 4 hours or up to two days. Pastry cream will thicken further, as it cools.
Toppings + Assembly
Find unsweetened flake coconut in the bulk bins of a well-stocked grocery, or in the bakery aisle (Bob's Red Mill), or here.
1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut chips (wide flake)
2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream (not ultra-pasturized, ideally)
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
When crust and custard are completely cool, and you intend to serve the pie within 6 hours, assemble and finish your pie.
Preheat the oven to 325°, spread coconut chips on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast until golden, 7-8 minutes. Stay close; coconut burns quickly. Allow to cool completely (move to a plate and pop into the freezer, to expedite).
Deposit the custard into the crust, and smooth the top. Set aside.
Whip the cream until soft peaks form, then add sugar and vanilla, and continue whipping, until firm enough to hold a respectable peak. For fancy poufs, fit a large pastry bag (or large ziploc) with a wide star tip, and pipe cream in swirls across the top of the pie, adding a second layer in the center, while supplies last. Alternatively, simply dollop the cream in clouds across the pie. Scatter cooled, toasted coconut over all, and recite pi: 3.14159...