What prompts a woman who’s not really into cooking to take such time with her food that she pits her own olives? Aunt Terry didn’t hover around her mother while she cooked; she had better things to do like playing outside. She never really was interested in cooking but observed others over the years and built her repertoire of mostly southern Italian dishes. Proof that she learns by observation comes as a voice outside calls out, “Oh, that smells good.” Aunt Terry responds, “It doesn’t take much to impress the neighbors; you sauté garlic and oil, open the windows and they think you’re a good cook.” But as she smashes Manzanilla’s Queen olives with the jar—hard enough to crush a finger, chops onions to the ideal thickness and rolls dough into an almost perfect braid along the pan’s edges, teasing, “Of course my sweet fingers make things delicious,” one realizes the owner of that passing voice knows more than Aunt Terry takes credit for. The aroma of sautéed onion and fresh dough fill the kitchen as Aunt Terry slides her mother’s rolling pin without handles through her fingers musing as to how she ended up with it when her older sisters usually commandeered their mother’s treasures. Soon, she’s back to the dish saying how much she’d appreciate a sous chef like the cooks on TV; evidently, she’s still got better things to do than chop onions. While she may not have been born donning an apron, over the years Aunt Terry’s experimented with her onion and olive pie recipe and declares that’s the best way to cook; try variations in ingredients and temperature. You’ll know when it’s right, and you’ll know what you need to change if it tastes funky. Even though she’s not fond of all the prep work and eschews exact measurements, she’s got her particulars worked out when it comes to this recipe: using un-pitted olives for a fresher taste, smashing olives to reduce pitting time, buying dough from the local Italian specialty store, cutting little “birds’ beaks” into the top layer of dough; she even breaks the recipe tradition by axing the anchovies. In order to add another layer of flavor, after sautéing the onions she makes a well catching the oil and bastes the dough with it before baking.
This recipe was a go-to when she and her husband threw parties throughout the year. Though they’ve cut their large celebrations down to holidays, her meticulous nature pays off each Christmas eve when she pulls the steaming pie from the oven, little slits like smiles beckoning the eater. She cuts into the pie revealing layers, and one can’t help think this is something most of us would drool over as we pass the corner bakery in a hip little neighborhood. Yet, when Aunt Terry serves it, the eater bites into soft dough and moist onion and olive while she serenades her guests with stories from the old days. It’s clear she gets more than just a meal from her hard work in the kitchen. Eating Aunt Terry’s onion and olive pie forces us to slow down, savor the layers and reflect on those dishes we look forward to all year long.
ONION & OLIVE PIE
-2 lbs dough (two pieces) -1 large jar of spanish olives, with pits -3-4 medium onions, sliced thinly -olive oil -oregano to taste -anchovies (optional) -9x15 pan or equivalent
Saute onions in olive oil and add oregano and pepper to taste as you cook them. Smash olives with the bottom of the olive jar, remove flesh with a knife. Roll one ball of the dough out to fit pan with a little extra to fold over top of crust. Remove onions from pan when they look soft and well browned and place in a bowl. Make a well in the center and let oil drip to bottom of bowl. Use this oil to brush the bottom of the pan and the top of the crust. Place rolled out dough in the pan, then fill in with onions and olive pieces (and anchovies, if using). Roll out second ball of dough and lay over the top of the filling. Fold border of bottom crust up and over top crust and press the edges down as you go to make a seal. Brush remaining oil over top of crust, use the brush to press the seal down more firmly. Cut V shaped vents in the top crust with scissors to let steam escape. Bake at 450 degrees for 25 minutes or so until crust is browned. Using a pizza stone under the pan helps the heat to distribute more evenly and make sure that the bottom crust browns well. If you don't have a pizza stone, don't worry, it will still be delicious!