Aaaah, the good ‘ole form vs content dilemma, old as this world, much discussed by artists, philosophers and critics alike. What do these things mean to us, and how do they operate in our daily lives? Are they important? If so, why? If not, why not? Since we are dabbling in culinary arts here (as humbly as we can), and cooking, after all, is an art, let’s look at the form vs content issue from a point of view of a home cook, shall we?
Take this pie, for example. The idea came to me as part of the creative brainstorming session I like to call “how do I make ’em eat leftovers and not notice”. Yes, strangely, us artists have to trouble ourselves with things like these from time to time. The issues of the day were as troubling as they were burdensome: I forgot to defrost any kind of protein, and in my family meatless dinner is a big no-no. I had about two cups of mashed potatoes left over from the previous dinner, good luck feeding them that! Also I had a couple of handfuls of baby bella mushrooms, a quite odd amount picked up as a mercy buy at a vegetable co-op — not enough for a side dish, but too much for individual frying. Other ongoing issue, though not immediately pressing, my kid not eating eggs. Don’t ask, she just decided one day that eggs are her enemy. So I have these gorgeous fresh orange-yolked eggs from a local farm waiting to be incorporated into anything, anything at all!
So here you have it, folks, lots of content, for the most part wonderful and nutritious, but ultimately unattractive to us as dinner prospect. My artistic intuition was telling me that if I somehow combined these rejects into one meal, they stood a chance of being called a dinner, the question was how? Enters the question of form. Proper form was the key. I had to hide the ugly (mashed potatoes), serve the rejected (eggs) and incorporate the insufficient (mushrooms). Think, Yuliya, think, damn it! We need to eat!!!
In a moment of pure genius or just out of desperation I grab a big knife and begin chopping flour with butter. This seem to always soothe me when I am stressed. In a few minutes a beautiful ball of pie dough was born and went into the fridge for some chilling.
Next step, chopping the onions. When in doubt, chop the onions, that’s my artistic motto! I wasn’t quite sure yet what I was going to do, but chopping the onions is always the first step towards emotional healing. It makes me cry in a cathartic sort of way. I added a few cloves of garlic for good measure, and into the buttered skillet they all went. Things were beginning to look up from there on — thyme, chopped mushrooms, salt and pepper, all familiar and comforting friends… Sure, I kept telling to myself, I can make some beautiful individual pies for each of us, and add some green side dish to them, and maybe, just maybe, no one will notice that there is no meat. I was still crying, but this time it was not from onions, it was because I felt I found the solution (at least in theory), that perfect form that would make sense of all the disparaged content and bring unity and harmony, and please the eye. It was a real break-through, a revelation only granted to a few chosen ones, and I was one of them… Oh, I live for moments such as this…
Assembly of the pies went without a hitch: beautiful coarsely chopped dough will surely become flaky upon baking. On it goes a flattened portion of mashed potatoes, which will serve as a buffer between the bottom crust and wet mushrooms. Over mashed potatoes goes a portion of cooked mushrooms, also flattened. The dough folds around mushrooms like a champ, creating this gorgeous fluted well filled with delicious goodies, ready for the egg. I transfer the pies onto the baking sheet, knowing full well that transfer needs to happen before the eggs are added. I am thoughtful, focused, and deliberate. I use a wide blade spatula to transfer the pies, and it all goes well. I don’t crack the eggs directly over the pies, instead I crack them into a cup first to be sure the yolk is intact, then I carefully pour the eggs into the wells. I sprinkle them with salt and pepper. OMG! Is all I am gonna say. I snap a few pictures and put the baking sheet into the oven. I cry again, this time the tears of relief and creative joy are pouring down, mixed with the sweat rolling off my forehead. I did it. I did it again. Is there anything I can’t do?!
I set my oven timer and, all jittery in anticipation of the proverbial Big Yum Experience, I start cooking my zucchinis… In a few minutes I start smelling fried egg. Err… excuse me? Why am I smelling fried eggs? I look into the oven, and my heart sinks. Two out of three eggs rolled off the now softened edges of the pies and slid onto the baking sheet, where they proceeded to cook in a very trivial, non-genius manner. No more beautiful fluted wells for me. Duh! I forgot this dough gets soft from all the butter in it. It gets soft before it crusts. Curses, curses!! I grab a spatula, scoop the eggs carefully and plop them back on top of the pies which now resemble thick ugly pizzas more than they do wells. I feel devastated, my artistic ego mortally wounded, my pride shattered, my hope in finding that perfect form forever lost… Somehow I continue tossing the zucchinis throughout this entire ordeal, don’t ask me how I did it, but I managed…
In fifteen minutes it’s all over. The pies are cooked. I pull this abomination out of the oven, sickened by the very idea of looking at them… I am forced to look at them, however, because they still smell pretty good. Whatever, I think, anyone can make things that smell good, it’s the perfect form that I was after…
The dinner time comes, and we sit down to partake in our meatless hideous spoils… Reluctantly, I grab a fork and sink it into the pie. It makes this distinctive crackling sound followed by a muffled woosh and then another crackling. My ears prick up. It sounds perfect. Two cracklings mean the bottom crust stayed intact, so potato buffer worked! Whatever, says my ego, so you predicted it correctly, now what? Then I send the forkful of pie into my frowny mouth…
What I experienced was almost nothing short of a miracle… In just a few bites, all was forgiven… Well, almost all. Reaching for complete forgiveness, I took a few bites of my kid’s pie. While doing that, I noticed that she ate the egg! She was making these very satisfied sloppy sounds interspersed with loud lip smacking, which could only mean one thing — she liked the pie, too!
* * *
So there you have it, my friends. Somehow, in my quest for the perfect form, I created the perfect content. Sure, I lost the form in the meantime and was struck by lightening of disappointment, but it was just as brief as it was painful. And in the end, we all found Big Yum Experience, and that’s more than enough for me as an artist.
Mushroom Pie With Egg
Makes 3 individual pies
- 1 stick butter
- 1 cup flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 2 cups mashes potatoes (leftovers are perfect)
- 2-3 tbsp cooking fat (I mixed butter and olive oil)
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2-3 cups chopped mushrooms
- 2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped
- salt, pepper to taste
- 3 large fresh eggs
- Make the dough: Cut in flour, butter and salt with the knife until fine crumb forms. Alternatively use a processor in pulse mode.
- Add sour cream and mix with your fingers until just incorporated and starts to clump. Press together into a ball, give it a few kneads for consistency.
- Wrap dough in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour.
- Make the filling: In a skillet, melt cooking fat(s) over medium heat.
- Add the chopped onions and garlic and saute until fragrant and golden, for about 5-7 minutes.
- Add mushrooms and thyme and stir well.
- Season to taste and continue cooking until mushrooms let their juices out and almost all of the juices evaporate — about 5-6 more minutes. When mushrooms are nicely browned, you are done.
- Preheat the oven to 425F.
- Assemble the pies: Divide the dough into three equal portions.
- On a floured surface, roll the dough out into a circle, about the size of a dinner plate.
- Cut the uneven edges off with a sharp knife or a rolling cutter.
- Place a portion of mashed potatoes in the middle of the pie, centered. Flatten it with a spoon to resemble a pancake.
- Place a portion of cooked mushrooms (squeeze the liquid out, if there is any) on top of the potatoes. Flatten with a spoon.
- Fold the edges of the dough around the potatoes and mushrooms, creating about a 1/2″ edge over the mushrooms, leaving room for the egg.
- Transfer the pies onto a parchment lined baking sheet.
- With a spoon, make a nice well in the middle of the mushroom pile, and carefully pour in a fresh egg. I cracked the egg into a cup first to ensure the yolk is intact, then poured it slowly into the pie.
- Sprinkle some salt and freshly ground black pepper on top of the egg.
- Bake pies for about 25 minutes, or until the crust is browned pleasantly. Check on the pies to be sure eggs haven’t escaped. If they do, don’t despair, wait for a minute or so until eggs are slightly cooked, scoop them off the baking sheet with a large spoon and return them to the middle of the pies.
- Sprinkle some fresh herbs on top if desire. Let pies rest for a few minutes and serve hot.