I try to plan ahead for these articles I write. I like to decide at least a couple of weeks beforehand any topics I might tackle in order to let things “roll around” in my head for a while.
Sometimes life intervenes: a world event, an unexpected brainstorm, a need to stand on my soapbox. On those occasions my mind and my heart will not allow silence, and I am forced to throw my schedule out the window – or at least back a week.
That being said, I am still amazed that I am writing about pie this week. In almost seven decades of life, I have never once baked a pie. Oh, I have consumed my share, but I simply do not possess the skill nor the will to even attempt this dessert described as easy – in my opinion, a dangerously deceptive characterization.
It happens that the contestants on PBS’ The Great British Baking Show were recently charged with turning out pastry in three forms, one of which was pie. Then I ran across one of those internet lists, “The Best Pie in Every State,” which detailed state-by-state where to purchase tasty pies – so I drooled my way through all fifty photographs. When A Few Good Pie Places showed up on my TV screen, I knew the writing muses had spoken.
Maybe the easy part of pie is recognizing it. We can probably all agree that a pie is round, taking its shape from the pan or plate in which it is baked. Even that basic requirement, however, varies widely. My mother baked most of her pies in glass pie plates, but lots of people regularly use metal pans. I have also seen pies in ceramic dishes or disposable aluminum tins. Presumably, each vessel carries the requisite set of advantages and disadvantages.
All pies have at least a bottom crust, with as many variations as there are pie bakers and pie eaters. My mother’s goal – and, therefore, my gold standard – was flakiness. With Betty Crocker guiding her, Mother used the essential ingredients of flour, fat, sugar, and salt for her carefully-choregraphed dough ballet accomplished with cloth-covered pastry board, similarly-wrapped rolling pin, and hand-held pastry blender.
Every baker swears by a certain type and brand of flour as well as form of fat: shortening, butter, lard, oil. Even ingredient temperature plays a role, often with very cold butter and ice water somehow involved.
The very appearance of pie crust is based on a combination of individual imagination and family tradition. For pies requiring a top crust, Mother customarily opted for an unadorned layer of pastry to cover the apples or cherries – no cute little shapes or intricate lattices for her. Just four basic steam vents cut into the dough and a couple of shakes of sugar.
More fascinating is the crimped edge, where the two layers of unbaked dough connect, the place where pie bakers can score style points. Mother tended to look down her nose at fork crimping. For her, it was all in the finger, thumb, and wrist. I loved to watch her twist and turn and manipulate dough to form a decorative rim that, through the magic of baking, became a tender treat simply flaking its way into final lusciousness.
And then there are the fillings. I would suggest there are three or four basic pie filling categories: fruit, nut, cream, and “whoa.” Berries and apples should retain their shapes and flavors, while nut fillings – especially pecan – effortlessly create a decadent richness. Cream fillings should be, well, creamy and smooth.
I add the “whoa” category based on modern magazine recipes or those Facebook videos where isolated cooking hands stuff as many peanut butter cups, chocolate turtles, butterscotch chips, and brownies into a pie pan before slathering the entire thing with whipped cream and marshmallow fluff. I shudder to calculate the number of calories packed into the tiniest sliver of one of those concoctions.
Mile-high pies and crumb toppings notwithstanding, however, there are other pie factors to be considered. Pies tend to be traditional. Although my sisters and some bakeries do their best, Thanksgiving and Easter meals are just not quite the same without Mother’s versions of pumpkin and lemon meringue pie – even if her meringue wept almost every time.
And there are many who consider a pie much more than a pie. In those PBS broadcasts, bakers point with pride to any rustic “imperfections” as evidence of their individual, handmade efforts. They fill their pies with huckleberries that only grow wild or with the slices of exactly two sweet potatoes. They sing while they bake, sell their still-warm wares on the honor system at roadside stands, tie string around the box.
They also wax poetic about the passion they bake into their pies. They insist that pie baking is actually a labor of love leading to the all-important sharing phase. Consider: We seldom eat pie on the fly. People must be seated around a pie as slices or wedges or pieces or slabs are cut. Pie bakers and pie eaters alike understand the nostalgia of pie.
I will save whoopee pies, mud pies, pizza pies, pie birds, pie safes, and 3.14 for another article on another day. For today, I will allow myself to understand how pie represents a time gone by: when things were simpler, perhaps happier – and, well, easier.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.