Life of Pie

By Amanda Miller

Chocolate, pecan, cherry, pumpkin. Nut, cream, fruit, custard. It can be topped with fluffy meringue, whipped cream, buttery crumble, or a dollop of ice cream, but no matter how it is served, it’s pie. And everyone loves pie.

Multifaceted and many-splendored, pies come in a plethora of types and tastes. Billowy egg whites piled onto a rich lemon curd are just as much a pie as peanut butter crumbs sprinkled above and below layers of cool whip and vanilla pudding; quintessential latticed apple is in the same recipe categorization with unusual bourbon chocolate peanut.

In spite of the limitless possibilities for variation in the filling and topping of this dessert, pies do not come in all shapes and sizes. They are round, and typically within an inch or two of diameter. No one makes tiny square pies, you know.

The other common denominator comprises the actual foundation of the pie — the crust. There is only one style of true pie crust, the traditional pastry dough. It’s the shell within which the rest of the pie is allowed to come into being; that flaky underlying layer is the component tying this dessert category together. Whether it is blind-baked or baked filled, single or double, the crust makes the pie. A pie is literally not a pie without it.

This is where it gets tricky. Although it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to eat pie, those who make them are a bit fewer and farther between. In fact, the mention of entirely homemade pie with crust is often enough to trigger waves of admiration and/or tremors of fear in any baker, nascent or experienced. That standard pie crust is essential and inescapable, an arch-nemesis and a bragging point of home cooks.

I sometimes wonder if the aura of holy trepidation is actually based on reality or more in the socially accepted and perpetuated reputation of elusive perfection. I’m usually too busy happily and harriedly trying to keep the dough chilled and the flour dust contained to ponder on it for long.
I’m so happy muscling my wooden rolling pin over the stiff disc of fresh pastry because I love making pies — maybe even especially the crust. No one else I know likes to make pie crusts; most rarely if ever even attempt it (although maybe I just need to get out more). In contrast, frequently I hear a note of disdain or perhaps bitterness in reference to that one downer in pie-baking. Really, just buy frozen premade crust.

Why am I such an anomaly in the realm of pie-making? It’s one thing to always make your own pie crust, but to even love it …

The secret lies not in my achieving an unfailingly flaky, light pie shell every time, because half the time they’re uncomfortably overbaked, tough, or soggy. It’s not that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into fresh, all-butter pastry, because I awkwardly prefer to eat the filling by itself. It’s not even in some driving hubris to be The Mennonite Domestic, because that’s only part of it. It’s in the source of my first learning how to make pie crust.

My grandma is the one who first walked me through elevating a few basic ingredients into the base of that dessert we all know and love. Even those years ago, her wrinkled hands were not quite dexterous enough and her aged wrists not quite strong enough to roll out the pastry dough into submission, but she pulled her chair up close to our kitchen worktable and talked me through each step.

Grandma’s years of experience negated her needing a recipe to guide her dictation of ingredients I should dump into the bowl. It isn’t meticulous measurements of flour and fat that makes the shell, after all; it’s working with the dough and making the dough work for you. Enough flour, a clump or two of shortening, some cold water (but not too much). She watched me mix, she fingered the crumbs, she helped me adjust it to just right.

As always when I do anything in the kitchen, during this whole process, I made a mess. Flour poofed out as I mixed and patted, ice water sloshed onto the table, sticky flakes of dough sprung off my fingers. My impeccably neat grandmother, tidy to a fault, said nothing as I trashed her standard of housekeeping. Flipping the pastry disc over to continue the rolling process, releasing more white breaths of flour? But no reprimand.

Her wooden rolling pin in my still-practicing hands creaked back and forth, a semi-round shape materializing beneath it. Soon it was big enough for me to carefully fold in half over itself, gingerly place into the awaiting pie plate, reopen to full size, and gently press down. We breathed a collective sigh of relief at successful transfer.

Grandma instructed me to use a butter knife to trim the edges of limp dough hanging lazily over the walls of the pie pan, and to treasure-trove the scraps for baking with cinnamon sugar later. Her fingertips knew exactly what they were doing in ridging the perimeter of the crust, so my thumb and forefingers copied hers as closely as possible as we worked our way around the shell, leaving mismatching teamworked pinches in our wake.

And then we were done. Leaning back, together we smiled our celebration at completion. Sure, flour dusted the front of my shirt, dishes cluttered the table, and dough stuck in my fingernails, but that was all peripheral.

I just learned to make pie crust. Best skill ever.

I don’t even remember what we filled that glorified specimen of a pie shell with that day, but it doesn’t even matter. I’ve modified my method and ingredients since then, always using homemade butter and a pinch of this and that, but it doesn’t matter either.

What matters is that every time I messily cut in that cold butter or capably pinch my way around those pastry edges or cautiously lay those lattice strips over the filling, I remember Grandma. It was just one morning, one baking project together, but it will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Everyone loves pie. But I love pie crust.