Pie Day

January 26, 2014

It’s a pie day; in fact, I have just taken the pie from the oven, and it is breathing heavily–and drooling thickly–on a cookie tray on the stove top. It’s a blueberry-raspberry pie; the blueberries come from a can. We made a boxed cheesecake last night to top off a beef paprika dinner, and Mark opened the can to add a little blueberry love to the packaged treat.

The raspberries are from Randy’s farm; Randy runs our college mail room and duplicating center, and he brought me berries as a thank you for some effort I can no longer even remember making. I froze the generous bag of berries, and take some out for special treats.

Since we are on day two of an unusually heavy snowstorm, it seemed like a special day: a pie day. (I am baking gingersnaps, too, but cookies are more prosaic. A pie is an event.)

I make my pastry using a recipe a friend, Gretchen, shared many years ago. We were both young marrieds (my first marriage was an ill-considered attempt at that state; Gretchen chose more astutely and hers has lasted something like 40 years), and Gretchen was an enthusiastic cook. She would have us over for dinner and serve menus that included things like this: spaghetti and meatballs, corn on the cob, salad, bread, a veggie, pork chops, and pie and ice cream for dessert.

“I LOVE to cook for you!” she might have been saying. “Let’s eat it ALL!”

Obligingly, we ate as much of everything as we could and then stared in disbelief when Gretchen’s husband Jim suggested some after dinner tennis. We had to move our legs by placing both hands under our thighs, lifting, and shoving off at that point.

“More pie?’ asked Gretchen.

Sure, we said.

Gretchen cooked because she is loving and giving and she aspired to have happy, well-fed people around her table. I am not so nice. During my second, more lasting marriage endeavor, I discovered that one of my husband’s exes was known for her pie-baking skills. This did not sit well with me; I wanted to expunge that whole memory and put a new, more delicious legend in its place.

The problem was my pie crust. It was like my mother’s; and Mom admitted to having a heavy hand with pastry. Her pie fillings were delicious, but the pie shells were as light and flaky as wet cardboard.

I studied cookbooks and learned about ice water and limited handling, about the benefits of chilled shortening versus white lard, but it was all so darned iffy and dependent on things like humidity and patience and finding lard in my little supermarket. Gretchen, however, mentioned that her pie crust recipe was never fail, and she promised to give it to me. (Here’s another unflattering difference between Gretchen and me; I have said something very similar hundreds of times, and forgotten; she went home, hand-copied the recipe, and sent it to me in that day’s mail.)

Gretchen’s recipe uses flour, shortening, sugar, and salt mixed with water, vinegar, and an egg. It truly doesn’t ever fail, and I have used her formula ever since.

I learned that brushing the bottom shell with egg white seals it, sort of, and keeps oozy filling from turning the crust to mush. Then, I mix the remaining egg white with the yolk, and glaze the top crust, sprinkling it all with sugar or cinnamon sugar for a shiny crunch.

I have been meaning to make pie crust for a week or so, thinking of the berries in the freezer downstairs, and the weather being very, very cold. There’s something about having a pie in the house. So this morning, when even the churches cancelled services, it was the right time to get to it.

Pies are, to me, not just food; making a pie is like stirring up a history of family and friendships. I use Gretchen’s pastry recipe, which came from her friend Karen’s grandmother–rich history there. I mix that up in a big yellow corning-ware bowl that my longtime friend Sharon gave me; we share a love of rich and useful artifacts of life from the 50’s and 60’s.
I use a marble rolling pin; it was my mother’s, given to her by my pie-loving brother Dennis, now deceased for over ten years. I remember when Den gave that to her; he was a young married himself at the time, and looking for a gift that was cheaply priced but seemed expensive. The rolling pin was a great find. Decades later, its cool marble still calms my pastries. (There are stories about Den and the fact that any piece of cherry pie he ate would cough up a cherry pit; it became so legendary that one of his friends’ mothers put a cherry pit in his piece of lemon pie, for a joke. If memory serves–and it well might not–,that pit broke a tooth and she was mortified at a silly gesture gone awry.)

I roll things out on a tupperware mat that has graduated circles on it so I can figure out how big to roll the crust; I haven’t been to a tupperware party in thirty years, and I can’t remember which party yielded that tool, but it’s been a good friend.

I use the Joy of Cooking for my filling recipes; Joy, Julia Child, and Alice Waters are my mainstay ‘big’ cookbooks. (My first copy of Joy came from a thrift shop, and when I opened it, I discovered ration coupons from WWII.)

And my baking processes have evolved since I was a nasty teenager who fought with my mother over the silly fact that I hated to clean up after myself, and she didn’t think she should have to. Oh, I was burdened! To think that I could struggle to craft a superb dessert and then be expected to WASH MY DISHES. Life was just unfair. It never occurred to me that my mother, who kept the cookie jar stocked and who liberally fed cookies to all of our voracious friends, always cleaned up after her own baking.

Back in those days, I read ladies’ mags like they were biblical founts of truth–Redbook, which had outstanding fiction (I read my first Anne Tyler novel in a Redbook magazine), was my favorite, but I would read Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, Good Housekeeping, etc. And in one volume, I read an article–I think it was a Redbook non-fiction column that focused on how women surmounted problems facing them–by a woman whose kitchen had always been a mess, until her son got a job at McDonald’s. McDonald’s taught their workers a ‘clean as you go’ process, and the boy, in turn, taught his mother. So she didn’t just stack dishes in the sink and then retreat because the pile was so daunting, any more; when she finished step one, she cleaned up that round, and then went on to step two of her kitchen project.

Hokie smokes! What a concept! I started putting that into play. By the time a batch of cookies came out of the oven, all the mixing bowls and measuring cups were cleaned and put away, the ingredients stashed, the counters wiped. Then, when my cooking adventure was done, all I had to do was wash one last cookie sheet or pan, and I could walk away with no guilt—and no nagging mother reminding me that if I wanted to bake in her kitchen, I could darned well clean up after myself… Funny how the works of literature that change our lives are sometimes spiritual, sometimes classical, sometimes outré’, and sometimes from an inexpensive, consumer-driven ladies magazine.

So, the pie, now resting warmly on a yellow fiesta ware plate, the drooly cookie sheet which sheltered my oven from overflow cleaned and drying, is not just a pie, really. It’s an amalgam of tools and recipes and practices gathered during a long life of fits and errors, friends and losses. I cannot bake a pie, for instance, without thinking fondly of our pie-baking friend Wendy, who comes to visit every summer. We explore Ohio, we go to movies and shows, we eat out…but during every visit, we host a barbecue. No one remembers what we grill, but everyone remembers Wendy’s pies made from the fruits of the farmers’ market, whatever they are and wherever we are. Sometimes we make our own ice cream; sometimes we buy ice cream; sometimes we whip real cream into peaks. But the pie is what we remember, and Wendy’s joy as she shoos us from the kitchen, cranks up the temp on the oven, and hums as she peels peaches and washes blueberries–another glorious soul whose joy is in sharing and not in competition. How lucky we are!

Lucky to have had all the memories, even if the memories mean loss, because a little thing like a pie is so much more than a pie…it’s a collage of life, of luck in friends and family, of learning and growth, of joy in giving and joy in receiving.

So let the snow fall; the pie is done; the boys have taken off for an intrepid adventurers’ trip to the store. They’ll come home with ice cream, perhaps; we’ll roast pork and mash potatoes, and after a comfort food dinner, we’ll cut into the pie. The crust, because it never fails, will explode crustily; the filling, obeying the dictates of Joy of Cooking, will ooze just enough. We’ll be comforted and buoyed; the snow will eventually stop; life’s regular routines will resume; and it may be months before another pie day arrives. By then, we’ll need a pie day; tonight, we’ll fall asleep comforted and nourished and thankful, ready to pick things up and go on.


Gretchen’s No-Fail Pie Crust


4 cups flour

1-3/4 cups shortening

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons salt

In large bowl, mix all ingredients above with fork until thoroughly blended.

Mix together in separate bowl:

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 egg

½ cup water

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with fork until all ingredients are moistened. Mold dough into ball.  Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide into five portions (one-fifth of the whole is enough for one pie shell or top crust) and roll out on lightly floured surface.

Always tender, even with excess handling.


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