Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Location
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Birthday
March 18
Title
Editor in Chief
Company
Talking Writing
Bio
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Athenas_Head (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)

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SEPTEMBER 21, 2010 10:47AM

My Quest to Make the Perfect Pie

Rate: 12 Flag

I love pies. I love homemade cakes, too, but pies bring out the longing in me.

Recently, I made a peach pie that approached my Platonic ideal. One teenage dinner guest told me that "if this pie were at our house, it would be gone by breakfast." My response was gracious—it was a great pie. But I knew it wasn't perfect. I hadn't sliced the fruit neatly. The filling was tasty mush.

I'm always tough on myself, regardless of the pie. Sample comments from me, after others have raved: "Those apples were crummy." "The crust is tough." "The crust is like a lead doorstop." That's why my husband and several friends call my approach "The Disclaimer Baking Company."

Perfectionism often gets a bad rap, but I'm going to stick up for perfection when it comes to pie. I have high standards for political leaders and my own writing—so why not for the pies I make? I've long outgrown my desire to consume Pop-Tarts or "apple pie" from McDonalds. If anything shoved me into Plato's cave in search of pie, it was Pop-Tarts. 

These days, I'm fighting entropy, procrastination, my own helplessness. So when I bake, I'm always experimenting. I fiddle every time in order to meet my exacting standards. That's the fun of it, the creativity, the whole reason for making something for its own sake.

Photo by Kristin of Meringue Bakeshop in Orange County. Also see Kristin's blog,
 
Photo by Kristin of Meringue Bake Shop in Anaheim, California.
Also see Kristin's blog, A Swirl of Meringue

It's like making jazz. Or writing a novel. The quest for the perfect pie—or anything else—involves both high standards and improvisation.

I hate the word "hobby." Hobbies sound boring. They imply marking-time activities in airports—cross-word puzzles, Sudoku—or something made from a kit. "Avocation" is only slightly better, because it evokes obsessed celibate monks at the other extreme. So forget avocation, hobby, leisure activity—what leisure time?—or any other term for my pie-making. It is a labor of love.

I was imprinted young with the notion that pies are something you make, not purchase from a bakery. But the first crust I loved was a product of its time: quick and easy. It was an oil crust, which tends to be grainy and crumbly and has none of the flakiness sophisticated foodies associate with amazing homemade pie. Still, my mother swore by her Wesson Oil crust. 

Mom used canned apples or blueberries. But she made it herself, rolling the dough between sheets of waxed paper to make it easier to transfer to the pie tin (a technique I still use). I watched her take the pie hot from the oven. Later, we slathered our pieces with whipped cream. Pies were Thanksgiving: apple, cherry, and lemon meringue. For our family, that was the trinity of pies. 

Once I began my adult quest to make the perfect crust, abandoning my mother's oil version, I had to fail spectacularly before I soared. I remember one crust, based on a Martha Stewart recipe, which I pummeled in a Cuisinart for so long that the result was like wet cardboard.

I've since learned how to make a decent Cuisinart crust, but that will always be a shadow of a shadow of my ideal.

For perfection in crust, you need to cut in the shortening by hand. You need to mix it as little as possible. The dough barely holds together. Even after chilling, the dough will crack and fall apart when it's rolled out. It will create a holy mess in your kitchen when you fling it on top of the fruit.

It is like jazz: a mess that sometimes coheres. My husband says he knows a pie will be good if I'm cursing as I roll it out. He also says it takes me forever to make a pie, which isn't true. But Disclaimer Pies do require mental focus.

I love The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion for its tips and explanation of the science behind a good pie crust. Now I add a little baking powder, cider vinegar, and buttermilk powder. I no longer attempt all-butter crusts. I use a mix of butter and Crisco, because, as a vegetarian, I can't use lard (alas). 

I'm an intellectual when it comes to baking—or a scientist—or an editor.

Disclaimer Baking is an editorial approach, no question. Yet it's about more than personalitry quirks or my actual profession. I have come very close to baking the perfect pie, and while such almost-perfection is ephemeral, its presence in my life sustains me more than I can say.

Last week, I made my last peach pie of the year. After a hot summer, the peach season in New England went on longer than usual, but it's over now.

That pie was excellent, the crust flaky, the fruit deeply peachy. But I'd used too much corn starch, throwing in several tablespoons without measuring, so the filling was gummy. Was there too much vanilla? Not enough whiskey?

I'd dumped flour and dough all over the floor. I also set the oven too low to start—although it's possible that mistake made the crust flakier.

The friend who shared the first pieces with me joked, "Yeah, I'll force myself to eat the wreckage."

Yet she let me disclaim away. She knew Disclaimer Baking helps me to understand the smallest thing that can go wrong. It gives me practice in mastering my disappointment, in fostering ever-rising hope. 

 

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This sounds lovely! I will look up that King Arthur book. I love pie, I love baking, and my attempts at pie crust have mostly been lousy. Thanks for all the tips!
"My husband says he knows a pie will be good if I'm cursing as I roll it out. "

That made me laugh - because it's really true!

One trick (and I think I made this up) that has alleviated some of the cursing is to roll out the dough between two sheets of wax paper that have been coated with flour. Sprinkle the flour on the was paper, rub it in, covering the whole sheet, and then shake off the excess. Also, turn the dough over frequently while rolling, and peel off the wax paper every now and then to prevent the dough from getting stuck on there.
My mother is a Queen in the crust dept, and can do it with her eyes closed. Me? I'm a Pillsbury in the box girl...it's a gift I tell ya.
As my grandmother used to say, "our people" used canned fruits too, and so I'm always suspect of foodies and their highfalutin notions of pie crusts. I am so in love with hand-rolled crusts with recipes that my mother used when she was 15... flaky crusts are great, but my mother and her mother (and her mother) did just fine thank you very much.

Thanks for your post.
Perfectionism in pursuit of the perfect pie crust is no vice.

But maybe you could compromise and accept your compliments gracefully because with pie it's possible to be a long, long way from perfect and still be better than most of us ever manage.

The best crusts I've ever made have been with lard and an egg - seems if you can eat butter you should be able to eat lard - vegetarian vs. vegan? Whatever, seems like what you're doing is working.

Even after chilling, the dough will crack and fall apart when it's rolled out. - the sign of a very short and soon to be very flaky crust. mmmmm mm.
Handmade food- especially pie- definitely qualifies as an avocation! I picked up the notion early on that rolling out pie crust was a formidable task and relied for years on frozen crusts. I've tried making dough myself... And like you I find it quite tricky... But worth it.
My most recent effort at homemade pie crust involved me breaking down and buying some lard (our grocer has a large Hispanic customer base and it's about $1.50/lb & a pie needs about 4 ounces of lard). The crust was incredible. I'll never use butter, margarine, cooking oil or shortening again. It's lard for me. That's the Cheap Bastid way!
I know it's not good for you but I doubt that pie's all that good for you either. Besides I only make 3 or 4 pies a year. And I've got a really good and simple recipe for you (plus recipes for all the other "fats" as well). Let me know & I'll send it.
I love all these comments! Walter, please do send me your recipe. Lard, I know. Probably the best pie crust I ever ate was made with lard. I decided to accidentally on purpose forget that it was made with lard, one of those gyrations that us longtime vegetarians do.

N.C., I'm not really a strict vegetarian, but lard--at least intellectually--goes over the line for me. Lard is harvested from a dead pig while butter is made from the milk of a live cow.

Yeah, I know. Sounds like I'm dancing on a pin.
Not so much dancing on a pin, your argument makes perfect sense and a point I obviously didn't consider. I wonder if the co-op carries lard from free-range pigs - I think they do ... you can see I don't make pie crust that often.
I think you and I have been on the same journey! I've tried so many crust recipes, over and over again. My favorite is actually an all butter crust (just butter, pastry flour, salt and ice water) that I finally got down to a science -- or nearly. There's always that lack of true perfection. One day...