The Trials & Tribulations of Pie

Name one thing every self-respecting farm woman can do, and somewhere near the top of the list you will find “pie”. Pie is a food that is completely an American, and more specifically, a Midwestern thing. Pie makes it’s appearance both at the mundane moments (Tuesday night supper) and the momentus (proper funerals). Pie is a dish that everyone remembers from their childhood. My mom comes from a long line of pie bakers. I won’t give away my Mothers secrets (or her recipes), but regardless of our situation there was a pie on our table on a regular enough basis. My mom makes a fantastic apple pie. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it, but maybe that’s what makes it so good. Even better than my mom’s apple is a simple icebox chocolate pie, that I could sit down and devour in it’s entirely the moment I discovered it in the refrigerator. Pie equals home in most people’s minds, including my own.

So, I make a great pie, right? Wrong! At least at this point in time. Sure I can churn out icebox chocolate pies with the graham cracker crusts like there’s no tomorrow, but learning that one was borne of necessity– I didn’t have mom whipping them up for me in my college dorm room. And I can make a decent pumpkin pie when Thanksgiving demands it, though truth be told, my husband’s is better. But fruit pie? Elaborate berry or custard concoctions? Forget about it– they turn out soggy on the bottom, burnt on the top and somewhere between congealed plastic and soupy mess in the middle.

I read a great book about pie lately that got me thinking there was still hope for my pie-baking skills. This book combines my love of food writing and road trip writing into one neat bundle of goodness– it’s called American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) From America’s Back Roads by Pascale La Draoulec. Once I finished reading it (in a near-record two days), I was inspired by all the great pies that exist to try my hand at baking one myself. I decided to try a cherry pie, for no particular reason, and it ended up being the single worst cherry pie I have ever seen and declined to eat in my life. I had one hell of a time rolling out my suppossedly-simple Jiffy pie crust mix and fitting it into my deep-dish pie pan. Then there was the issue of cherries. I had to bags of organic frozen cherries. I knew they had to be sweetened and thickened, so I tossed them into a saucepan with a cup of sugar, and tried in vain to thicken them, with a roux, of all things. When they were “done” (and boy, was I skeptical) I poured the still very liquid-y mess into the bottom crust. Then I thought I might like to do a pretty lattice top crust. So I again, struggled to roll out another layer of dough, cursing with all my might and glaring at my innocent by-stander husband, who sensing my apparent frusteration, was trying to offer kind suggestions. Once I got the crust rolled out in one piece, I realized I had lost all patience with the process and was not about the spend the next thirty minutes of my life cutting thin, uniform lattice work and arranging on top of my perfectly assembled pie. So, using a steak knife, I cut six thick swathes of dough and layered them in devil-may-care fashion on top of the dark cherry filling, only to see the whole affair sink into the quicksand of the filling. I shoved it into the oven and set the timer. About fifteen minutes later, I opened the oven to take a peek. The top crust was taking on a lovely golden-brown hue. For a brief second, I felt there might be hope for this monstrosity of a pie. Then I closed the door to let it bake a little while longer… and promptly forgot about it. About an hour later, when the unmistakable smell of burning started to waft through the apartment, I jumped up in alarm, remembering. The PIE!! I ran to the kitchen, and took it out of the oven. The top crust was nearly black and the cherries were oozing out of the lattice in a menacing, bubbling way, very reminiscent of a hot tar pit. I stood and lamented over it in disbelief. A complete failure. (I have to bless my husband though, because he actually tried to eat some of it, despite my ardent protestations).

Hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty. First of all, I had no business trying to bake a pie in the mood I was in that day. I had had a crappy day at work, a yucky commute home, an accident than injured both my hand and my wedding ring (neither permanently, fortunately). I was in a fantasticly foul mood, which is no way to bake pie. Pie takes patience and love. You have to be nice to your dough– just enough water, just enough flour. Not to much pressure with the rolling pin. I have since learned that tapioca is the pie-bakers best friend. It thickens juicy fruits like nobody’s business. And for goodness’ sake, set the oven timer! You want golden brown, not burnt black. So, will I try to make a pie again? Absolutely. Every self-respecting farm girl should. And will I succeed and finally bring out the legendary pie I know lurks deep inside? Yes, because every self-respecting farm girl does.

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