Monday, March 7, 2011

All About Pie

My memories from childhood about pie centered around my mom's cooking and the delicious and beautiful items produced from the kitchen. I don't remember her baking pie very often, though it left quite an impression on me. I was horrified to think that black beans played a part in the making of a pie! My vividly-imagining mind couldn't understand that they were used solely as a tool for keeping the crust weighted in the pan and not to add any flavor or (eek!) nutrition to the end product.

I think back to those limited pie exposure days and wonder why I am so in love with pie currently. Maybe it is for the fruit filling, mixed with spices and a little sweetener or maybe it is for the light, flaky crust, like a croissant that tastes good even when cold. It must be the combination of those two elements and that the combination has a way of being more healthful than cookies or cakes. There's fresh fruit in there, after all.

In my quest to know more than just what flavor pie I liked (peach, spiced apple, cherry walnut), I set out to learn about the pie-making process. I learned about Four and 20 Blackbirds, owned by Wendy Sykes, an instructor-baker in Ravenna from a broadcast on KUOW about pie and its rise in popularity. It also featured one of my favorite pie bakers from High Five Pie, as well as the owner of Shoofly Pie (which I have yet to taste). Immediately, I went to the instructor's site and signed up for a class. For $55, Wendy would teach us in a hands-on class of the nuances and skills for making the perfect crust. That was the secret to good pie, I learned, as the filling seemed to be an afterthought. Wendy had already prepared the filling for the mini rhubarb custard pie we would each make, so we could turn our focus to the crust.

It became very clear to me during the class that fat was essential to the making of a pie. Fat in the crust, fat dabbed onto the filling and a little fat on top. That's a lot of fat, but fat is what makes things taste good. I'm not used to cooking with fat and I had to ask what shortening was, since my experience with it was hearing the word in a song or reading it in a book. Soon enough, I was using my pastry blender to cut the vegetable oil, solid at room temperature, into the flour mixture, then added water, not too much mixing and handling, then into the refrigerator it went.

When the dough had cooled, I rolled it out, using the quick, simple strokes I was instructed to do. The soon-to-be crust was smooth and uniform in color. It lifted from the mat like a blanket and I draped it into the pie dish. Wendy poured the filling in and I created a top crust, then tucked in the dough, sealing in the juices (this is making me hungry), then into the oven it went. The result: a pie so good that I had to have a nightcap slice before I went to bed.

A couple of weeks passed and I finally assembled the parts and ingredients to explore my own pie crusts and pies. I started with a spiced apple. The consistency of the crust wasn't quite the same and it stuck horribly to the stick-free mat I bought, but I persevered and ended up with a nice, tasty pie that even my foodie friends were impressed with. The second try (the very next week, as practice makes perfect), I made a rum-apple-walnut pie, this time with no recipe for the filling, just an idea as to what I thought would taste good. It tasted good and the pie looked beautiful, with a lattice crust that my teacher would be proud of. But, even so, the crust wasn't quite the blanket-like consistency that I was striving for.

Somewhere along, in the middle of consuming the pie-of-the-week, I was struck with a thought that perhaps meant I had wasted my $55 and several hours of time. What if I have been put on earth to eat pie, but only pie that others have baked. For every pie, several eaters are necessary to give meaning to the pie's existence. I think I am one of those people and not the pie creator, however much I would like to be. That is not to say that I am going to sell my pastry mat and use my rolling pin solely for muscle relaxing  (seriously, you should try it), because it is a valuable skill to be able to churn out a pie for a party at a moment's notice. But, for now, I will be happy with roaming the streets of Seattle by bicycle and riding for pie.

Look for my rides, to different neighborhoods of the city and to outlying areas on the COGS website.

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