Whitewashed…or It Ain’t Fusion, it’s Confusion

I’m big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch (though I would never use that dreaded moniker “Cumberbitch”), so I was excited to see the new trailer for his upcoming film Dr. Strange, based on a popular Marvel comic.  Unlike Rina, who lives and breathes comics, I’m not all too familiar with the origins of these Marvel characters.  Consequently, I was surprised by the controversy and backlash generated by the film’s teaser.  But as I read more about the casting controversy surrounding this film, as well as Ghost in the Shell, a live action adaptation of a popular Japanese manga starring Scarlett Johansson, I began to understand why critics, and in particular Asian Americans, are so incensed by the very obvious “whitewashing” of Asian characters in these films.

Whatever the arguments the studios and production companies involved in the making of these films offer up to explain their casting choices–like “oh we’re actually thinking outside the box by casting a (really white) woman (Tilda Swinton) to play the role of “The Ancient One” (in Dr Strange), who in the comic is a Tibetan-born man”–the bottom line is this is really about the bottom line.  That is nothing new.  It is, nevertheless, extremely disheartening and infuriating.  Could Marvel have done something truly inspired and cast a non-white male for the lead (as much as I love Cumberbatch), especially since “there is nothing inherently gendered or racially specific in the lead character’s main concept,” as one critic has pointed out?  Sure, but Benedict Cumberbatch is a safe choice because he’s a great classically-trained actor with a solid fan base who also lends gravitas to the project.  Could they have cast an Asian actor to play “The Ancient One” instead of Tilda Swinton?  I mean come on, there is no shortage of extremely talented Asian actors, skilled in martial arts even, who could’ve taken on the role.  No offense to Swinton–she’s actually one of my favorite actresses–but her response to the backlash, explaining “it’s not actually an Asian character” and she “wasn’t asked to play an Asian character” just adds insult to injury.  Essentially, Marvel has made a film with all the “Oriental” trappings to narratively play out what critic Graeme McMillan calls “the white man finds enlightenment in Asia trope.”

Similarly, casting Johansson to play the part of cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi is less about her skill as an actress and more about her bankability and name recognition.  She’s a fine actress and has done very well in the action/sci-fi genre, in particular as Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers franchise.  But, again, there are plenty of talented Asian actresses who could’ve been cast to play this part, such as Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi who at least has one big budget action/sci-fi movie, Pacific Rim (2013), under her belt.  Unfortunately, she not famous enough to play an Asian character.  This leads us to the bigger question–how are non-white actors/actresses suppose to get famous enough to be able to play characters of their own ethnic origin when mainstream Hollywood continues to culturally appropriate and whitewash those roles that could potentially offer them the means to “get famous?”  They don’t, unless they manage to produce their own projects and then, by some miracle, make a ton of money in the process–enough to get Hollywood’s attention.

Interestingly enough, manga fans in Japan are not so riled up about Johansson’s casting, mainly because they expected it to happen.  If Hollywood buys the rights to a Japanese property then there is no reason for them to expect Japanese or Asian actors will be cast since it’s no longer “Japanese.”  I think Asian Americans are far more sensitive about it precisely because we, along with other ethnic groups, face cultural appropriation and lack of authentic representation every day.  This is our reality.  We see in all forms of media, in politics, and in the culinary landscape.

Take the concept of “fusion” cuisine, for example–or as I like to call it “confusion” cuisine.  The idea of America being a “melting pot” of cultures is one that is predicated on the notion that different cultures coexist in some kind of harmonious balance like a well-made stew.  But what it also means is that those differences that make each culture unique are obliterated, melting into “one culture.”  When fusion cuisine is done really well, it respects the origins from which it sprang–great care and attention is paid to the ingredients and the techniques of preparation.  You can’t “fuse” what you don’t understand.  Like I always tell my pastry cooks, you can’t break the rules unless you know them really well.  Bad fusion cuisine is merely a half-assed interpretation with no clear understanding or respect for the cultures it’s trying to fuse–more a marketing ploy than anything thing else.  It may sound cool and hip, but more often than not it’s a hot mess.  Not all Asian ingredients are the same, just as not all Asians are the same, or all Hispanics the same, or all people of Middle Eastern descent the same.  You can’t just substitute, for example, Chinese fermented tofu for Korean fermented soybean paste.  Yeah, they are both made from soybeans but they ARE NOT THE SAME!  And boy, do they taste totally different.  Come on, do your due diligence people.  Similarly, F. Murray Abraham and Alfred Molina can’t be the only go-to actors you cast for any part remotely Middle Eastern or Latino.  That’s just plain lazy and uninspired thinking.

What I love about living in the Bay Area is that we don’t have to travel far to find authentic ethnic cuisines from a diversity of cultures, so there’s really no excuse for confusion cuisine.  There’s ample opportunities to explore and to educate oneself about another culture’s cuisine.  And even if you don’t live here, there’s this great tool called the internet–Google it or watch some instructional videos on YouTube.

YouTube is where my friend Karen and I found this video on how to make authentic Chinese crullers, roughly translated as “oil sticks,” which doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, but I guarantee they are divine.   It’s something you’ll find in most dim sum places and restaurants specializing  Northern Chinese or Taiwanese fare.  Our first try was just so so–flavor was nice but the texture was a little too dense.  I went back to the drawing board…or in this case my Chinese cookbooks and came up with a hybrid recipe that worked a lot better.  When made properly the crullers have this distinctly crispy exterior and light, airy interior, with just the right about of chew.  I grew up devouring many of these, dunking them in hot sweetened fresh soy milk or floating pieces of them in jook or rice porridge.

Once you’ve mastered the technique for making these delectable crullers, the possibilities are endless for what you can do with them…Chinese or otherwise.

Chinese Crullers

Yield: approximately 8-10 (depending on the length)

  • 1-1/2 cups Bread Flour (plus a little more for rolling)
  • 1 Tbsp. Baking Powder
  • 1/2 tsp. Baking Soda
  • 3/4 tsp. Salt
  • 1/2 tsp. Sugar
  • 1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp. Warm Water

Place the flour in medium mixing bowl and make a well in the center.  Dissolve the baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in the warm water and pour it into the center of the well.  Stir everything together until the dough begins to form.   Knead the dough with your hands until the dough comes together into a ball, then transfer onto a floured surface and knead some more until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm place for about an hour.  Punch down the dough to release the gases then place it a large, lightly greased ziplock bag and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight (or up to 2 days).

Let the dough come up to room temperature before rolling out to 1/8″ thickness and about 4″ wide.  Cut the dough into 3/4″ wide strips.  Using a thin chopstick or the back of a chef’s knife make an indentation down the middle of one strip, then lay another strip on top it, pressing the two pieces together by making another indentation down the middle.  Repeat the process with the other dough strips.

Heat the oil to 360°F.  Fry up to 3 double strips at a time, gentle tugging the dough at the ends to extend the length before lowering it into the oil.  Use a pair of long wooden chopsticks or a pair of tongs to turn the crullers so they fry evenly.  Drain the fried crullers on paper towels.

 

 

 

 

 

Small Dice Challenge: Spring Rolls and Chicken Wings

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I was grocery shopping when I came across the above.  I always love ordering Vietnamese spring rolls when I go out to Vietnamese restaurants, so I wanted to see if I could make them at home.  I remembered that I had bought shrimp meat a couple of days ago and figured I could use that instead of the big pieces one may usually find in them.  After all, I am on a budget.  Also, I had a slaw mix that I used to make egg rolls a few days before that needed to be used.  What can I say, I like my rolls.  So, I got to work fryin’ up some shrimp meat.

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After my meat was cooked, I used warm water to soften the wrappers, because they were like paper.  This was the most annoying process ever.  I tore each and every one.

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Some of my rolls ended up having more than one wrapper, because I would tear it as I rolled then I would just throw another wrapper on top to cover the hole.  They came out okay though.

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A little awkward to eat though.  My daughter thought they were too sticky…

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…so she tore them apart and just ate the shrimp.

Next, I made some chicken wings.  I put salt and pepper on them and baked at 350° for about 30 minutes.  While it was baking, I made a sauce.  I used soy sauce, honey, and the very last squirt of my spicy brown mustard.  When the chicken was done, I just mixed it all up in a bowl.

And it came out delicious.  My picky husband even approved, and I may just open my own Wings and more franchise.  IMG_20160420_205548

Retro Baking…or What I Learned From Betty Crocker

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When I was a kid, at around seven or eight years old, my mom brought home this vintage 1950’s Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook from a garage sale.  I was instantly captivated by the vivid photographs of (what I considered at the time) all the “fancy food” and the depiction of this idealized domestic world from a bygone era, where moms laid out beautifully lavish buffets full of glorious cakes and pies.  I had no idea what the heck a “Lady Baltimore Cake” was, but I wanted to bake one.  While my mom only dabbled in a handful of recipes–the main one being chiffon cake, which to this day is probably the only recipe she still uses out of the book–I studied the cookbook from cover to cover, fantasizing about throwing elaborate dinner parties where I would cook all that fancy food.

When I was finally old enough to operate the mixer and oven on my own, at around ten or eleven, I tackled the baking section with gusto.  I think my mom figured I’d do the least amount of damage to the kitchen if I just stuck to cookies, cakes, and pies.  Besides, it got her out of buying me an Easy Bake oven!  I had some epic failures–my first apple pie was a soggy mess (nowhere in the recipe was there even a mention of adding a thickener, like cornstarch!).  And of course, being that it was the 70’s, my mom did not buy butter, but rather Imperial Margarine…which was called “the king of margarines.”  I was a kid, so how was I suppose to know the difference!?  Still, I did manage to perfect the cream puff (even if it was with Imperial and not butter).  Unfortunately, I had to fill them with Cool Whip, which mom thought was the best thing since whipped cream.

Looking back on it now, I realize that what really fascinated me and captured my imagination was not so much the recipes in that cookbook–because, let’s face it some them weren’t very well written or instructive, despite the countless pictures of women in professional-looking lab coats “testing out” recipes in their pristine kitchens–but the lifestyle it presented…albeit circa 1950’s America.  Betty Crocker is about as all-American as you can get and I suppose that’s why my mom chose that particular cookbook at the garage sale.  As immigrants, we wanted a way to connect to a foreign culture that was far from our own.  For me Betty Crocker and old Hollywood movies went hand in hand, both idealized versions of American life.  It’s no wonder I longed for my mom to be more like Doris Day (the quintessential movie mom) in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) or The Thrill of It All (1963).  Besides the Cool Whip, Kraft American Slices and Wonder Bread, I grew up on a steady diet of classic “afternoon matinees” in front of the television…in case you’re wondering how a ten year old from the 70’s even knew who Doris Day and David Niven were.

When I’m feeling nostalgic I like to bake something reminiscent of those cakes pictured in our vintage Betty Crocker cookbook, like an classic Angel Food.  My version is flavored with coconut and is the perfect light, Springtime dessert.

Coconut Angel Food Cake

  • 1/4 cup Unsweetened Shredded Coconut
  • 3/4 cup Sugar
  • 1-3/4 cups + 2 Tbsp. Cake Flour (sifted 3x)
  • 1/2 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt
  • 1-1/2 cups Egg Whites (slightly cooler than room temperature)
  • 1/2 cup + 3 Tbsp. Sugar
  • 1-1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. coconut extract

Position rack in lower 1/3 of the oven and preheat to 350°F.  Process the coconut and 3/4 cup sugar until very fine, then whisk together with the sifted cake flour and salt; set aside.  In a mixer fitted with a whip attachment, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy on medium high speed.  Sprinkle in 3 Tbsp. sugar and continue whipping until soft peaks form, then gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/2 cup sugar.  Whip whites until glossy firm peaks form, then whip in vanilla and coconut extracts.  Remove the bowl from the mixer, sprinkle about 1/3 of the dry ingredients over the beaten egg whites and carefully fold together with a rubber spatula.  Repeat the process twice, until all of the dry ingredients have been fully incorporated–be careful not to over mix or the whites will deflate.

Distribute the batter evenly into an ungreased 10″ angel food tube pan (with removable bottom), using the spatula to smooth out the surface.  Bake for 35-40 mins. or until the top is golden and wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Remove the cake from the oven and immediately invert to cool upside down (this will help the cake from deflating during the cooling process), for about an hour.  Run a sharp paring around the sides to loosen the cake.

Dust the cake with powdered sugar and serve with a nice helping of fresh fruit compote…preferably strawberry-rhubarb!

 

 

 

 

On the Set: The Grass is Greener

On the Set by Rina Ayuyang

Many moons ago, I self-published a comic series called Namby Pamby. This is from the last issue from 2008, and marks the first of a series of comics that will adapt excerpts from movie star memoirs. What I like most about movie star memoirs is learning the behind-the-scenes moments during the making of my favorite movies, especially the interaction between the stars, crew and director. This one is from Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies by Stephen M. Silverman. Stanley Donen is one of my favorite directors, whose versatility in directing musicals, comedies, suspense genres is something I truly admire. Plus he got to direct some of the most iconic stars in Classic Hollywood. Stay tuned where I try to find some back story to The Women from Joan Fontaine’s memoir. Click here for a bigger glimpse of the comic>

Nora Knows Best

Nora Ephron is my spirit animal.  There, I’ve said it.  I’ve felt this way ever since I first stumbled across her poignantly funny, biting, foodcentric autobiographical novel Heartburn (1983) back in my twenties.  I instantly related to Nora’s brand of edgy humor…and her obsession with food.  Watching her son Jacob Bernstein’s insightful HBO documentary Everything is Copy (2016) about his late mother recently–which Rina aptly called “hypnotic”–reminded me of just how much Nora and her wisdom has inspired my creativity over the years, both in terms of my writing and, more importantly, my culinary pursuits.  And I’m not just referring to her movies, which I have to say are some of my favorite “go to’s,” especially when I’m in need of comfort…like a good slice of pie.

Sure, most people know Nora Ephron primarily as a filmmaker of popular romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and Julie & Julia (2009).  But aside from her work in films–with screenwriting credits for a range of films including Heartburn (based on her novel), Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, My Blue Heaven, and Michael–Nora Ephron was a prolific journalist and essayist, whose clear-eyed view of the world, in a particular of relationships, always made for a great read.  She was fearless when it came to expressing her opinions (of which she had many), a master at exposing the underlying truths about everything from being a woman in the modern world (sorry, beautiful women do not have it just a tough as plain ones) to the pretensions of media culture (reading People is like eating potato chips, enjoyable at first but you feel bad about it afterwards), to the inevitability of aging (“The Senior Moment has become the Google moment”)–wielding her sharp wit like a scalpel to cut away the bullshit and using humor to enlighten.   In talking about the women’s movement, Nora once lamented that “it was a terrible shame” that those in the front lines hadn’t realized “how much easier it was to reach people by making them laugh than by shaking a fist.”

At the heart of Ephron’s writing is her mantra “everything is copy”–in other words, it’s all about how you control the story, how you shape your narrative.  You can either be the butt of the joke or you can be the one telling the joke.  You can be the victim or the heroine of your story.  Nora may have been the “injured party” in the train wreck that was her divorce from Carl Bernstein, but in writing Heartburn (novel and screenplay) she became (as Rachel Samstat) the heroine who rises out of the ashes of her imploded marriage…to be played on-screen by the great Meryl Streep no less!

This is what I learned from Nora.  To be a strong woman you have to tell your own story–you have to own your story.  Don’t be afraid to express your opinions…just make sure to (like in cooking) season liberally with humor.  It’ll make most things seem more palatable.   Certainly for me, writing this blog has given me a means to exercise control over some portion of my life, which is extremely gratifying, particularly when I have less control over other parts of my life…like when I discover that I’m down one production person and have a thousand mini desserts to make in 12 hours.  Here, I can create whatever recipe I want because I don’t have to work within anyone’s parameters.  More importantly, I can embrace what I truly love to do on my own terms.

Perhaps, that is the reason why I (well, I should say “we” because Rina and Laura also feel the same way), really only love half of Ephron’s last film Julie & Julia–the Julia part.  No offense to Amy Adams (who is a marvelous actress), but Julie is a whiny pain in the ass.  Yes, she became a blogger as a means to escape her humdrum existence, but she more or less did it by riding on the back of Julia Child, cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking–essentially telling her story through imitation.  Julia Child (played by the brilliant Meryl Streep), on the other hand, took control of what was at the time a male-dominated profession and made it her own.  Her passion for food, zest for life, and refusal to accept the status quo was the driving force that enabled her to blaze a new trail for herself and countless other women chefs.  And like Nora, Julia did it with humor.

At the end, Nora Ephron purposefully kept her illness out of the narrative of her life, choosing instead to focus on living in the present, perhaps because she did not want to be defined by the state of her health.   Nevertheless, in her last collection of essays I Remember Nothing she does reflect on what she would miss after her death–of course her husband Nick and her sons, but also Pride & Prejudice, bacon, and pie (a woman after my own heart).

In celebration of her life, I’ve come up with my own spin on a few of her favorites…because there can never be enough bacon or pie.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Spring Vegetables

Carbonara is what Rachel Samstat makes for Mark Feldman after their first night together in Heartburn.  If you’re the type of person who always keeps a stock of the three main ingredients–bacon, eggs, and pasta– in your kitchen then this recipe is for you.   I also happened to have asparagus, peas, mushrooms, and onion in my frig, so this is my version of carbonara.

Serves 2

  • 6 oz. Dry Spaghetti
  • 4 Strips Thick-Cut Bacon, cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
  • 2 Garlic Cloves, minced
  • 1/4 Medium Yellow Onion, chopped
  • 4 Fresh Asparagus Spears, cut into small pieces
  • 3-4 Button Mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/4 cup Frozen Peas
  • 2 Tbsp. Dry White Wine
  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 1/4 cup Grated Parmesan
  • Salt/Pepper to taste

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water for 8-10 mins. or until al dente.  While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet on medium and cook the bacon until almost crispy.  Add the garlic and onion, and saute until just soft.  Add in the asparagus and mushrooms and cook for couple of minutes until just tender, then add in the peas.  Saute for another minute then add in the white.  Season with salt and pepper.

Reserve about 1/2 cup of pasta water, then drain the cooked pasta.   Remove the skillet from the heat and add the cooked pasta.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and parmesan, then quickly toss the mixture into the hot pasta to evenly distribute.  Add some of the reserved pasta water to thin out the sauce.  Mound the pasta onto two plates and sprinkle with more grated Parmesan and cracked black pepper.

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Spring Vegetables

Key Lime Pie

Who can forget that famous scene in Heartburn where Rachel slams a Key Lime Pie into her cheating husband’s face at a dinner party.

While I love the catharsis of the moment, I always thought it was a shame to waste such a lovely pie.  Nora’s recipe calls for the classic graham cracker crust.  But I’m more of an English digestives kind of gal, so I used those in my crust instead.  I also like adding extra fresh lime zest to the filling, and topping the pie with a mound of whipped cream and garnishing it with toasted coconut chips.  It’s so pretty it would be criminal (and selfish) to hit someone in the face with it.

  • 8-10 Digestive Biscuits, ground
  • 2 Tbsp. Brown Sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. Melted Butter
  • 1 can Sweetened Condensed Milk (14 oz.)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup Key Lime Juice (e.g Nellie & Joe’s)
  • pinch of Sea or Kosher Salt
  • zest of 2 limes
  • 1 cup Heavy Whipping Cream
  • 2 Tbsp. Powdered Sugar
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
  • 1/2 cup Toasted Unsweetened Coconut Chips

In a bowl, toss together ground digestives, brown sugar, melted butter.  Press the mixture into a 9″ pie pan to form the crust.  Bake the crust at 350°F for abut 8-10 mins. to set.  Remove from the oven to cool.

Meanwhile, in a mixer beat together sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks for 2-3 mins.  Slowly beat in key lime juice, salt and zest.  Pour the mixture into the prepare crust.  Bake the pie for 15-18 mins. or until set.  Let the pie cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for another 30 mins.  Whip together the cream, powdered sugar and vanilla to medium stiff peaks.  Mound the cream on top of the cooled pie and garnish with toasted coconut.

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Key Lime Pie

Another favorite of Nora’s is the Sour Cream Peach Pie (also from Heartburn).  It’s not your typical double-crusted variety…more like peaches enveloped in a rich sour cream custard, slightly reminiscent of a French clafoutis.  Peaches aren’t in season yet, but it doesn’t really matter because this recipe works just fine with a package of good frozen peaches…and some frozen sweet dark cherries thrown in.  I opted for my tried and true pie crust rather than Nora’s press-into-pan sour cream crust, and added a little bit of vanilla and almond extracts to compliment the peaches and cherries.

Tried & True Pie Dough

  • 1-1/4 cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 tsp. Sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt
  • 3 Tbsp. Chilled Shortening, cut into small pieces
  • 5 Tbsp. Chilled Butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4 Tbsp. Ice Water
  • 1 Tbsp. Vodka

Place the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to combine.  Add the shortening and butter and pulse at intervals to process until the fat is broken down into the size of pop corn kernels.  Combine the water and vodka and drizzle into the processor, pulsing at intervals until mixture forms into a dough.  Transfer the mass onto a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten into a 1/2″ disk.  Chill the dough for at least 30 mins. before using.   To form and shape the pie shell, roll the dough out to 1/8″ thickness.  Slide the dough into a 9″pie pan and carefully nudge it against the sides, making sure not to stretch it (which will cause shrinkage when you bake).  Trim off the excess, leaving about 1″ of over hang, then tuck in the edges and crimp.  I like to chill the pie shell while the oven preheats to 350°F.  To “blind bake” the shell, line the inside with a large circle of parchment paper or foil and weight it down with about 3 cups of dry beans.  Bake the shell for about 15 mins., then remove the liner and beans and continue baking for another 5 mins. or until the crust is a golden.   Cool shell to room temperature.

Sour Cream Peach-Cherry Pie

  • 1 9″ Pre-Baked Pie Shell
  • 3 Egg Yolks
  • 3/4 cups Sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt
  • 2 Tbsp. All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 cup Sour Cream
  • 1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
  • 1/4 tsp. Almond Extract
  • 2 cups Frozen Peaches, slightly thawed
  • 1 cup Frozen Dark Sweet Cherries, slightly thawed

Whisk together the first 7 ingredients until smooth.  Arrange the peaches and cherries at the bottom of the pie shell, then pour the custard mixture over them.  Cover the pie with foil and bake at 350°F for abut 35 mins., then remove the foil and bake for another 10 mins. or until the filling is set.

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Sour Cream Peach-Cherry Pie