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Take flour, water, oil ... and then add practice

As I look down at the dry contents of the pie pan, I think of saltine crackers. Once, when I was out of crackers and wanted something to put peanut butter on, I wondered how they were made. And now I've done it without meaning to. I was aiming for pie crust, but I think I used too little oil.

Since the main ingredients of this pie crust are flour, oil, water, and a pinch of salt, it doesn't cost much to keep trying, and my second attempt is better. The dough rolls out so well that I suspect I've used too much oil this time.

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I'm ready to bake the crust. But what to fill it with? "Aha, quiche," I think. I've never made a quiche, but I find a recipe and I have all the ingredients in the fridge: eggs, milk, a couple of slices of bacon, a bit of onion, and parsley. Even some cheese to layer on the bottom. I pour the mixture into the unbaked crust over the cheese.

Forty minutes later, I have a reputable quiche. The crust, however, is still a problem - hard around the edges (yes, definitely too much oil) and soft on the bottom because of the cheese.

A year and a half ago, my roommate, Pam, had been online, ordering textbooks for the final semester of her master's program. Having become adept at used-book searches, she was now bereft - just sitting there, with no more books to find.

And there I was with virtually no books, after a decade of travel, writing - and eating microwave dinners. When Pam asked me what book I most regretted parting with, I replied instantly: "The Joy of Cooking, 1953." She gladly began the search.

The 1953 "Joy" was the current edition when a friend gave it to me in the 1960s as a wedding present. With all its butter-based sauces and cream-drenched desserts, it was a reminder of a postwar period when the nation could once again eat well.

My husband and I, however, had started our marriage with a new business to support. So I made elegant but cheap fare, putting just about everything except lettuce between flaky and flavorful pie crusts, thanks to an easy no-fail recipe in "Joy."

When the book finally fell apart in the mid-'70s, I replaced it with the current edition. By then I hadn't baked for years, but I tried the no-fail pie crust recipe again for nostalgia's sake. Like many of the other recipes, it had been altered, and it failed. Over the years, I had tried in vain to recapture my '53 "Joy."

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Pam located a copy online and ordered it at the lowest price from a bookseller at an undisclosed locale. Ten days later I received the book I'd longed for. Inside was a postcard with a vintage photo of the bookshop next to an orange grove, superimposed on a drawing of California's Orange County freeway system. I e-mailed the bookseller that I had both grown up and received my first copy of "Joy" just a few miles down that freeway. He e-mailed back, informing me that the orange grove was gone.

It was midsummer when Pam and I retrieved "Joy" - and hardly the time for baking pies. Now Pam has moved on, and it's two winters later. The urge to bake a pie has finally arrived. I'm renting a colleague's pied-à-terre with a kitchen mostly equipped for microwaving. I attribute my two recent pie crust failures to a lack of proper utensils.

The next day, I bundle up and head for the nearby hardware store to invest in a flour sifter and measuring cup. I'm a little surprised when the college-age clerk comments, "Yeah, you've got to sift the right amount of air into the flour, or you get a tough crust. I know - my aunt makes great pies." And she adds that a bottle of frozen water makes a good rolling pin. "It keeps the shortening from getting too warm."

I'm warmed by the unexpected human touch at the sales counter, and I feel that the experiment is becoming worthwhile. At the corner convenience store I buy a package of pudding mix - and as I reach for a pint of whipping cream, I remember that the kitchen has no electric beater. Not wanting to walk back through snow and slush to buy one, I grab a can of shake-and-squirt whipped cream instead.

This time I sift ample air into the flour, and the measuring cup provides the right proportions. The baked crust looks right, although it's ragged around the edges. I fill it with the chocolate pudding, put it to cool in the fridge, and invite a friend over for dessert. Then I adorn the edges with a wreath of artistically heaped whipped cream and beam at the result. But - ere I lift the pie cutter - the cream collapses into rivulets over the still-warm chocolate filling.

So much for elegance. At least I got the flaky crust I've been aiming for.

Through a haze of nostalgia, I now realize that while the "ease" of my "easy, no-fail" favorite pie crust recipe lay in simply pouring salad oil and very cold water into a cup of twice-sifted flour with salt and stirring quickly, the "no fail" part obviously came from practice.

And while I remember only the successful pies, reason suggests there must have been some useful failures, too.