Maple Custard Vanilla Bean Pie: Youth is not wasted on the young

For AC, BK, PS – you’ve made this round of applications truly enjoyable.

The fall is often a hectic time for me, as it is the season of college applications.  Some years are lighter but this year I ended up with a couple of students who decided to apply early to colleges, which means that I’ve had more meetings with senior students in recent days.  Most of my work has to do with the writing of essays, as I try to make sure that each of the applicants figures out what story they want to tell and then I help them to figure out how to tell it well.  It is often a grueling process as the story that needs to be told is often unwieldy and rather hard to put into a well-crafted, 500 word piece of writing; the students have to stand out and be memorable, and yet appear to the reader of their writing that they will “fit-in” into the school. It’s a fine balance that leads to lots of deleted words, many restarts, and unmentionable false starts.

Each year I survive the application process and I think to myself, “This will be my last year” because oftentimes the pressure on the students is hard to watch.  Yet each year I find myself with more students knocking on my door, and so for a brief three to four month period, I try and help students get the best of who they are on paper.  It’s a process that pushes me to ask questions of the students, try and quickly get to know the applicant, and subsequently become a brutal and harsh critic of work until eventually 500 words get hammered into a beautiful piece of writing.  I think probably the aspect that appeals to me the most is watching the process of each student, initially each as tentative, unsure storyteller of his or her own life, to the development of a piece of work that truly represents who they are and the story they want to tell.  It’s a process that I think some people take advantage of, trying to twist it into something for financial gain or personal bragging rights, but I tell the students that come to me that I want them to leave with a greater understanding of who they are and to be able to tell that on paper.  I don’t make lofty promises of where students will get in, nor do I try to force a story that needs to be told in order to “look good.”  The best pieces of writing have candor, honesty, and a moment of self discovery.

This year, in particular, I have three really amazing students who in different ways blow my mind.  Since August, I’ve been punishing them with my questions and pushing them to get their stories told – and the stories they have to tell particularly move my heart.  I actually wondered tonight, why do I feel so connected to students whom I’ve only known for three months. I actually felt several moments of heaviness when I also realized that once their applications are completed, I will fade into the distance and they will resume life and finish their senior year.  Generally I won’t hear from them until the texts come in March and April, joyously revealing their acceptances to me.  This group of three, I will be sad to see them leave my office, and after thinking and reflecting I think it is the stories that they tell that reveal their character that move me, because they are all characters and qualities I highly admire.

As students from a pretty normal, average public high school, I’m in awe of their development as human beings and people – they are young, but they are bold and they are interesting.  One student has a particular awareness of social inequity and social injustice within her school setting, and seeks to change it on both micro and macro levels.  Her awareness of this issue, even as the privileged majority, both warms my heart and makes me partially ashamed that I had no such context of understanding when I was her age.  Another is one of those naturally gifted and phenomenal musicians, with power and control over music and notes and musical ideas.  In conjunction with his musical gifts is a talent in science that he pushed and honed during his years into school, and made a second passion, matched only by his passion for his music.  The third is the talented comic, dancer, theater type, matched with her ambition for greatness and her brain for statistics.  Her wit, dry humor, and deadpan delivery of hysterical moments of her life have made me laugh until I cried, and coupled with this is an ability to express powerful emotions through the lens of humor.

In the near future, I’d be honored to work for any of these three young adults, if only to learn the things that they know and to understand their perspective of the world through their eyes. From a pretty normal, ordinary childhood, in a pretty ordinary town, these three have carved for themselves their own extraordinary paths and it is the most delicious and amazing thing to behold.

This custard pie – simple ordinary ingredients turn into something delicious and beyond ordinary, and it is one of those dishes you’ll miss when you’re gone.  It is not too sweet, complex in flavor, but the texture and the act of eating is just pure joy.  It isn’t hard to prepare as there are few ingredients, but it is hard to keep around once it’s made. It will be an amazing addition to your holiday table, and one that once it’s gone, you’ll think fondly upon it and wish you had more.

To the three this year who have touched my life, I’ll miss you when you’re gone, but think fondly upon your future successes. I’ll eat this pie, and always remember you.

Maple Custard Vanilla Bean Pie
Makes 9 inch pie, for 8 to 10 people
Pastry (adapted from Williams-Sonoma) (Feel free to use a store bought pre-baked pie crust if you prefer)
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoons salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
Preheat oven to 375.
To make the dough in a stand mixer, fit the mixer with the flat beater, and stir together the flour, sugar and salt in the mixer bowl. Add the butter and toss with a fork to coat with the flour mixture. Mix on medium-low speed until the texture resembles coarse cornmeal, with the butter pieces no larger than small peas. Add the water and mix on low speed just until the dough pulls together.
Transfer the dough to a work surface and flatten into a disk. (Although many dough recipes call for chilling the dough at this point, this dough should be rolled out immediately for the best results.) Take ball and lightly flour the work surface, then flatten the disk with 6 to 8 gentle taps of the rolling pin. Lift the dough and give it a quarter turn. Lightly dust the top of the dough or the rolling pin with flour as needed, then roll out into a round at least 12 inches in diameter and about 1/8 inch thick.  Lay crust into 9 inch pie pan; trim overhang.
Place a piece of parchment or aluminum foil on top of the pie crust and fill with dried beans or weights.  Bake for 15 minutes, remove from oven, remove weights and parchment, and bake for an additional 15 minutes more.  Remove from oven and set aside.
Maple Custard Filling and Construction
¾ cup maple syrup
1 vanilla bean, split
2 ¼ cups heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, add maple syrup and split vanilla bean, and reduce maple syrup by a third, 5 to 7 minutes.  (Note – it is possible to over reduce and get something close to candy.  As long as it’s not burnt, it’s fine to add the cream and create cream and maple mixture.) Stir in cream and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat.
In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks and egg. Whisking constantly, slowly add cream mixture to eggs. Strain mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a cup or bowl with pouring spout (Vanilla bean and extra non-smooth parts of custard will be left behind.) Stir in salt.

Pour filling into crust and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until pie is firm to touch, but jiggles slightly when moved, about 1 hour. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Printable recipe

When ordinary ingredients become great.

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