East of Eden Strawberry Lattice Pie

by Cara Nicoletti on May 30, 2012

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Whenever I have a friend who wants to read a classic but who isn’t an avid reader, I always give them John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It has all the drama of a supermarket paperback—cheating, stealing, arson, murder, prostitution, sadomasochism, incest, suicide, STD’s— so it can hold the attention of even the most easily-distracted reader, but because it has Steinbeck’s name on it there’s no shame in reading it on the subway (I see all of you trying to cover up your copies of 50 Shades of Gray on the G train). Steinbeck considered East of Eden to be his opus, and once said of it “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.” One certainly does get the sense while reading it that Steinbeck poured his whole self into this work, it is an incredibly ambitious novel, absolutely full-to-the-brim not only with low-brow drama, but also with complicated biblical sub-plots.

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The book is about two families—the Hamiltons and the Trasks—and their intersecting lives over multiple generations. The novel begins in the late nineteenth century with the story of Samuel Hamilton, who settles with his wife, Liza, in the Salinas Valley of Northern California. A wealthy stranger named Adam Trask moves to the most valuable plot of land in the valley with his wife, Cathy, and soon Adam and Samuel become close friends. The story becomes a flashback of Adam’s life in Connecticut, growing up on a farm with his moody and tempestuous half-brother, Charles. It is through the relationship between Adam and Charles that Steinbeck first introduces the biblical subplot of the Cain and Abel story in Genesis, 4. This subplot continues with Adam’s twin boys, Caleb and Aron. Aron inherits his father’s kind and honest nature, while Caleb exhibits signs early on that he has inherited his mother’s propensity for evil (Cathy abandons the boys when they are infants and becomes the madame of a sadomasochistic brothel in town).

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The entire book hinges on the translation of a single Hebrew word–Timshel“–which appears in the Cain and Abel story, and whether it means “thou shall” or “thou mayest.”  Caleb, like Cain, wrestles with the idea of original sin and wonders if he will ever be able to triumph over his evil nature or if he is doomed to sin because of the sins of his mother. The translation of “Timshel” as “thou may” rather than the traditionally accepted “thou shall” changes God’s message to Cain completely, as rather than cursing him to repeat the cycle of sin it gives him the ability to choose which path he will take.

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Along with being full of drama, East of Eden is also full of food. There are picnics of “cold meats, pickles, potato salad, coconut cake, and peach pie…and gigantic stoneware pitcher[s] full of milk,” (169) dinners of “fried chicken, a bowl of smoking boiled potatoes, and a deep dish of pickled beets” (263), ” chicken soup, a string-bean salad…[with] oil and vinegar,” fresh bread “white and rising in the pans” waiting to be cooked over an oakwood fire. My favorite food scene in East of Eden though, is when Samuel Hamilton’s wife, Liza, bakes a pie for Thanksgiving.

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Liza was rolling out pie crust on the floury board. She was so expert with the rolling pin that the dough seemed alive. It flattened out and then pulled back a little from the tension in itself. Liza lifted the pale sheet of it and laid it over one of the pie tins and trimmed the edges with a knife. The prepared berries lay deep in red juice in a bowl.

For something with so few ingredients, homemade pie crust can be incredibly intimidating (where did the saying “easy as pie” come from, anyway?). Once you get a knack for it though, it will never leave you. Just like Steinbeck writes in East of Eden “He discovered cooking is something you couldn’t learn. You had to feel it.” That being said, I will still attempt to give you the clearest directions possible to get you started on the path to pie crust perfection.

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East of Eden Strawberry Lattice Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

Crust

  • Ingredients:
  • 3 ¾ cups pastry flour (AP flour will work fine too)
  • 12 oz (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and frozen
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • A little over a ¼ cup ice water (possibly more)
  • Whites of 2 eggs, beaten, for brushing

Filling:

  • 2 quarts ripe strawberries
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • zest of ½ small orange
  • 5 fresh basil leaves
  • 2 fresh mint leaves

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Directions:

First, cube your butter and freeze it for at least 2 hours. I know this is irritating, but the colder the butter the flakier and lighter your crust is going to be. There’s a lot of butter in this recipe so it’s important that it’s almost frozen solid so that it incorporates into the flour the right way. I keep cubed butter (and shortening) wrapped in my freezer all the time so that if I ever get the urge to make a dough or crust or biscuits that require cold butter it’s not as much of a pain.

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Once your butter is frozen, sift all of your dry ingredients into a food processor and pulse it a few times so everything is incorporated. Add the frozen butter and pulse until the butter is incorporated throughout the flour in dime-sized chunks—usually about 7-10 times. Continue to pulse and slowly start adding your ice water. When the mixture starts coming together the tiniest bit stop the food-processor and squeeze a small handful of the mixture—if it holds together turn it out onto a clean surface, separate it into two even piles and carefully bring each pile together into a ball of dough–being careful not to handle it too much. Wrap the two balls tightly in plastic wrap and flatten them into disks. Refrigerate them at least 2 hours (ideally overnight) before rolling them out.

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While your dough is chilling cut the tops off of all your strawberries and place them in a bowl (if you’re using large strawberries you might want to cut them in half). Zest the orange over the berries and toss everything in sugar. Tear the basil and mint leaves into smallish pieces and mix everything together. Cover in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours (again, ideally overnight). Strawberries have a very high water content so it’s good to let them macerate and release a lot of their juice before baking them. Once they bake they will release a lot more liquid and you don’t want your pie to be soggy and filled with liquid. The sugar and the acid in the orange zest will help to draw lots of the liquid out.

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When your dough is rested and chilled set your oven to 350 degrees and turn one round out onto a clean, floured surface. Dust the top with flour and roll into a circle about ¼ inch thick. Mold it into your pie dish, pressing your thumbs around the bottom so that the dough is flush with the pie dish. Trim the edges and brush the dough with beaten egg white (this provides a barrier to keep the dough from getting soggy). Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until crust is slightly golden and firm to the touch. While bottom crust is baking turn your second dough round onto a clean, well-floured surface and roll to ¼ inch thickness.

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Cook down the reserved juice from the macerated berries until it’s thick and syrupy. Add it to lemonade, margaritas, or even plain seltzer–it’s delicious.

Using a ruler measure out lattice strips to your desired thickness (I did 1-inch), cut them into strips and set in the fridge. Strain your berries well through a fine mesh sieve, pick out the basil and mint leaves and reserve the juice. When your bottom pie-crust is ready remove it from the oven, and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Pour the berries into the shell and weave your lattice crust (Bon Appetit has a short-and-sweet video on the mechanics of weaving a lattice crust here if you’ve never done it before). Brush with egg whites and bake for about 45 minutes or until top crust is nicely golden-brown. Let cool and serve with ice cream.

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Leave a Comment

silverfinofhope May 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm

…oh my goodness, I am making some of that syrup tonight!

I read this when I was around 14. My mother had a well-worn paperback copy. Remember when paperbacks were so smooth and spare, and had those wonderful pastel or watercolor illustrations on the front? I remember the pages in mother’s copy also had dyed burgundy leaf at the edges.

The food is distinctly American in the novel, isn’t it? My grandmother used to make an amazing 3 bean salad, with vinegar and oil, similar to the string bean salad mentioned. I still crave it.

Thanks again for another wonderful post! xo

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yummybooks June 1, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Yes! I still remember my pastel copy of Rebecca so clearly. So many of the books on my parent’s shelves looked like that, too, I fell in love with a lot of the covers before I could even read them.

The food in all of Steinbeck’s novels is so wonderfully American–he’s a great fan of a cold-cut sandwich on white-bread. My mom makes a bean salad with oil and vinegar every Thanksgiving and it’s absolutely delicious. Thank you for always leaving such thoughtful comments, I appreciate having you as a reader more than you know! xo

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The Hedgehog cooks... May 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm

We just got back from a wonderful weekend in Napa, have the most wonderful dinner at The French Laundry, a wonderful present from the man who means everything in my life. And yet…looking at this pie I know that some wonderful Oregon strawberries are to be picked this afternoon at the farm stand and once again, I will be delighted with the results. Making magic in the kitchen appears to be a well honed practice for you, my dear. Thank you again, a new one to try for this old cook.

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yummybooks June 1, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Oh I’m so jealous, Allegra! The chef I worked under at my last restaurant was formerly at Per Se so we heard lots about the magic of Thomas Keller. I look at The French Laundry cookbook often during the dreary, slush-filled months of winter in Brooklyn. I hope it was as wonderful as I imagine it to be, you deserve it more than anyone.
Think of you often and hope you’re well,
Cara

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baconbiscuit212 May 31, 2012 at 12:10 am

Gorgeous! This is bar-none the most beautiful strawberry pie that I have ever seen. Actually, it may be the most beautiful pie — strawberry or not — that I have ever seen. Bravo!

I think the saying “easy as pie” might come from how easy pie is to eat instead of how pie is too cook. I bet this pie is really easy to eat!

On a side note, have you succumbed to the buzz about 50 Shades of Grey? After hearing so many people rave about it, I decided to download a sample on my Kindle. Verdict? I couldn’t even get through the sample. The writing is terrible. The author is a Brit (nothing wrong with that) who is writing about a story in the Pacific NW, but she clearly never did her research (didn’t seem to actually look on a map, and all of her American college students speak British English ie. they “go round” “ringing” each other.

I have nothing against erotica, but for heaven’s sake, I don’t want to read bad and poorly written erotica!

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yummybooks June 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Hahaha this actually made me laugh out-loud. I started reading my sister’s copy when I was home recently and was absolutely horrified! I know it started as Twilight fan fiction but I can’t take any more of these waify, virginal, helpless “heroines”! What happened to the Lizzy Bennets and Jo Marches of the world? On a less serious note, have you seen the Saturday Night Live skit about it? (If not you can see it here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xqmofb_saturday-night-live-fifty-shades-of-grey_shortfilms)
All of this said, I’m not promising I won’t read it.
Thank you for always leaving such thoughtful (and entertaining) comments!
Cara

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baconbiscuit212 June 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I could never get into the Twilight series, but vampires have never really held that much appeal to me. I think it has to do with their restrictive diets. I know the undead can’t help it, but blood has to get kind of boring after a while!
;-)

Speaking of strong women in books, I completely agree with you. I think that’s why I like the Hunger Games so much. It has a girl who doesn’t whine, isn’t helpless and eats like a man. My kind of girl!

That is the funniest SNL sketch! I heart Kristen Wiig! I saw the paperback version in the bookstore the other day. I wonder how popular it is given that the book’s popularity is largely due to the fact that people can download it and pretend they are reading Elie Wiesel or something. I don’t blame people for wanting to hide it. Not because it’s erotica, but because it is so poorly written it’s embarrassing!

Because I will take a paperback of Anais Nin on the train any day!

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Verbal Vixen June 12, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Thanks for sharing your twitter! We don’t care if your tweets are literary or not- and for the record, we read 50 Shades or Grey, and even though the writing was terrible we have to admit we kind of loved it and couldn’t stop reading…

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yummybooks June 14, 2012 at 11:41 pm

just read your post on 50 Shades–I love hearing such varying opinions from so many trusted sources! Might have to pick up my own copy tomorrow…
Will report back.

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baconbiscuit212 May 31, 2012 at 12:11 am

Go round ringing each other was meant to mean calling on the phone . . . not, um, you know.

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Elizabeth May 31, 2012 at 12:46 am

I read East of Eden so late in my life — just a few years ago — and remember thinking, oh, my god, where has this novel been? In any case, I adored it, and with this post, I still adore you. I think I’ll make a strawberry pie this weekend.

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yummybooks June 1, 2012 at 9:57 pm

I remember reading it in high school and being sort of embarrassed to talk about it in class at first–it was the most scandalous book I had ever read academically. I think I enjoyed reading it even more the last couple of weeks than I did when I was fifteen, it truly is one of the best books of all time (a bold statement, I know). I bet the strawberries in California are so much better than what we have here in New York! I envy whomever gets to eat your version. I adore you more, Elizabeth, your writing never ceases to move me and make me think–I’m very grateful for that.
-Cara

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Deb May 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm

I always wanted to bake a pie that looked like that. The strips are so even and perfect. Who taught you to bake like this?! Not me that’s for sure!
My strawberry plant grew a strawberry!! It turned red and everything- but alas i should have picked it before it got eaten by a rabbit. Fingers crossed it will grow many more and I can attempt to bake this most amazingly scrumptious looking pie!
I’ve always considered East of Eden one of my favorite books. It’s so full of the best kind of family drama and dysfunction. I never would have imagined something so sweet and perfect as this pie would have come from it- you’re my hero!

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Verbal Vixen June 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Are you on twitter? We love your blog, and would love to follow you to hear all your delicious book inspirations and thoughts!!

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yummybooks June 11, 2012 at 9:01 pm

I am! My twitter name is caradoos but I have to warn you, my tweets aren’t always very literary!

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sunidhi August 28, 2012 at 5:23 am

i never heard about this dish. it looks amazing i will try and let u know.

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jessicabenjestorf December 7, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Wow these are such great photos. The lattice came out so beautiful. So worth it to me to go the extra step when you’re baking, to have the final presentation look like that.

And the photo of the baby strawberry with it’s mom? love.

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Beans December 9, 2012 at 10:30 am

East of Eden is one of my all-time favorite books, Steinbeck is up there as a top author for me, as well. I picked up East of Eden at the most delicious book store in Santorini, Greece when I was traveling abroad. I was traveling alone, which was thrilling, but somewhat lonely at times. Books and impromptu meals with strangers met along my travels sustained and nourished me. Thanks for this post, it’s a very special one for me. I’m looking forward to picking up some strawberries at the farmer’s market this week-end and putting them to good, and hopefully as beautiful, use!

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Thomas P. December 11, 2012 at 11:13 am

I’m so looking forward to making this pie – and rereading this book! I have been needing a good winter read, and this is going to be it. I don’t remember it well enough, my memory isn’t doing it justice.

Your blog conquers all, yet again!

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