Earlier this year, I visited the New York office for three months on a work assignment. This visit was the first time I’d spent any significant length of time in the US since I relocated from Connecticut to London in 2003. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with the “old country”, especially its food. I cartwheeled up and down the Manhattan grid, happily eating old favourites from down memory lane, and new inventions since. Bagels at Ess-a-Bagel and Zabar’s, bialys at Kossar’s, falafels at Taim and Azuri, tacos at Otto’s, hot dogs at Nathan’s, gyros at The Halal Guys, shrimp and grits at Melba’s, vegan burgers at By Chloe, ramen at a couple of highly yelped joints, pizza by the slice everywhere, something else sweet at Dominique Ansel Bakery (cronuts always sold out). But all these were just sideshows to my reunion with what I’d missed the most – diners. The American style diner is a unique phenomenon. The few imitations I have tried in London completely miss the point, going overboard with a hyper-curated, faux 1950s look, you feel like you are in a Formica showroom and the food is invariably meh. Some of my best memories from the 90s are of the simplicity and comfort of New England and New York diners – eggs and home fries, pancakes, club sandwiches, milk shakes, kind waitresses bearing endless coffee, the pie display by the entrance.
So, pie. After a few rounds of savoury dishes, it was time to make my inaugural dessert. I had a lengthy list of classic American pies to choose from, and I chose pecan. The rule was the pie had to be of local origin, and as pecan nuts are native to the US, the pie’s pedigree was indisputable. Daughter said can you make corn dogs too, and I said why not? The battered sausage served on a stick is another American classic, and staple food at carnivals. Both Texas and Minnesota claim credit for its invention around 1940 at their respective state fairs.
With the pound taking a pounding in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, there is a renewed interest from US buyers seeking bargains in the London property market. Apparently, Notting Hill is a top choice for Americans who know it from the 1999 hit film. The allure is understandable, as there is no denying the area’s credentials as one of London’s picture-postcard neighbourhoods. We got on the tube to Notting Hill Gate station on the greyest and drizzliest of days, took a meandering walk and revelled in Instagram country – pastel mews houses, retro boutiques and designer shops, cafes doing brunch, Portobello Market doing Saturday. The only let down of the morning was the last stop of the walk – the American Food Store. It was a charming, little shop with too much emphasis on the little. I wasn’t expecting Walmart, but this place wasn’t even mini-mart. It was certainly a nice enough corner shop for expats looking for a few home comforts, but a grocery it was not. The only items I could buy from my list were corn meal and light corn syrup. I got the hot dogs, light brown sugar, pecans and whipped cream later from Sainsbury’s.
The pie crust was a disaster. I started off well; I made the dough using 1 ¼ cups of flour, a stick of butter, a pinch of salt and a little bit of icy water. After the dough had firmed up in the fridge for an hour, I took it out and tried to roll it after giving it a short rest at room temperature. The pastry fell apart at the slightest pressure of the rolling pin. I somehow managed a patchwork job, fitted it in a 9-inch pie tin, chilled again for 15 minutes, then blind baked it for another 15. The pie crust looked like an aerial shot of a desert. Hoping for better luck with the filling, I melted ¾ stick of butter, whisked in 1 ¼ cups of light brown sugar, took pan off the heat and added ¾ cup of corn syrup, 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. The mix was poured into three beaten eggs and further whisked until it reached a syrupy consistency. A handful of toasted and crushed pecans were added to for a bit of texture. I poured the filling into the pie shell, topped with whole toasted pecans and baked in a medium oven for about an hour, until the pie said yee-haw. The crust looked worn out, but the filling was well set.
While the pie was cooling, I made the corn dogs. I mixed a cup of flour, ½ cup of corn meal, 3 tablespoons of sugar, a teaspoon of baking powder and a teaspoon of salt. Into this dry mixture, I whisked a beaten egg and milk until the batter reached a thick, dropping consistency. The hot dogs, previously skewered with bamboo sticks were dipped into the batter and deep fried until the corn dogs emerged golden brown, texture like sun.
Son and Daughter declared the corn dogs a success, polished them off over an episode of South Park, and wanted more. There were no more hot dog sausages, but some peperami lying around in the fridge was coupled with the leftover batter for a second round. Then, armed with the whipped cream can, they moved on to the not yet fully cooled pie, ignoring my howls of protest. They were happy enough with their slices, and I couldn’t resist a forkful myself to see how the crust tasted. In the end, not as sad as it looked. The pastry had managed to come out of its ordeal with a flaky texture that cut through the sweetness of everything else, making for an acceptable piece of pie. Whaddayaknow?