Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Blest Be the Pie that Binds... A Perfect Apple Pie

Pie making is an art. And a joy.
Like any practice, it takes just that to become both comfortable and successful. Traveling as I do, I meet many women in other countries who would like to make an apple pie. "Teach us how to make a pie! It is so American!" they plead. In May, I had fun at the Kumars in Whitefield, Bangalore, India as mother and daughter perfected making their first delicious apple pies.

So, I am posting this essay with a warning: remember to enter the piemaking adventure with a gentle spirit. Don’t expect a masterpiece with your first rolling of the pin. What is great about this medium is that even amateur efforts are worth eating and give great pleasure. How smart you were to choose pies instead of pottery!

Of all the steps in the process, I’ve felt rolling the dough as thin as possible is the most important. Heavy, wet crusts are no fun to eat…though few of us will give up the challenge. A light, thin crust satisfies the sweet tooth, without bloating the belly.

My first pies were made with a friend, Rachel Cain, during the hot July days of our early teen-age years. I would stay at her dad’s cottage on Gull Lake, near my home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In the cool of the mornings, Rachel and I would pick blackberries, raspberries and blueberries, whatever wild ones we could find. Sometimes we would turn to store bought apples, and compete for producing the longest unbroken peel. (To this day, I pride myself on the speed with which I can strip an apple in one continuous red ribbon.) The afternoon was for pie making, and the summer evening for delighting her dad with our wonderful creations. I still remember Mr. Cain’s face, coming back to camp at night, thrilled we had ‘made dinner.’

Through all of my adult life, I have enjoyed bringing that expression of delight to the faces of friends, family and strangers, through the simple presentation of a homemade pie. I’ve paid with pies…for flat tires being fixed, keys pulled from locked cars, a big bureau moved up 39 steps, garbage hauling and childcare. Mechanics and hardware store clerks have come to look up expectedly at me during the Christmas season…another look I love. Sad friends, glad friends, lonely friends, celebrating friends, possible lovers, lustful lovers, fading lovers, new neighbors, former neighbors, even about-to-move neighbors have all appreciated my pie.

The fact is, a good crust is a great passport and persuader. My pies have gained me access to offices and services heretofore inaccessible. Bank closings have been scheduled earlier, rides provided to the airport and free legal and medical advice dispensed, all because of a pie.
My youngest brother Will actually willed his crusts "for the rest of his life" (the prized crimped piece he would save for eating last) to me when I left for college, a gesture that still makes me cry. My leaving changed our definition of family forever, and Will felt it the most.

My son Elliot has always asked for an apple pie for his birthday, and following his lead, my husband does, too. As I reflect on their choices, I wonder if they don’t pick pie because they know how happy I am to make one because I know how happy it will make them? I am most at home with flour in my hands, with rolling it out to the perfect thickness, gauged by my repeated patting. I love closing the edges, pinching round the pie plate, I am amazed at how lovely it looks, how it seems I am doing nothing more than obeying an interior order. When it comes time to cut vents on the top, I enjoy the weighty decision of whose initials will it bear, or will a heart suffice?

My parents rarely left the three of us with babysitters, but when they did, I always hoped for Mrs. Viola Kauska, a bantam henlike woman, weathered by rugged living. Viola had crossed the northern territories in a covered wagon, and worked at age 14 in logging camps. "I made 100 pies a day," she would reminisce, as she made another pie for us. Without measuring cups or spoons, Mrs. Kauska would fill her hands with enough of this and that, a fist full of flour, a pinch of salt. Her memory was weak, which meant she read the same Nancy Drew mystery whenever she babysat, as the ending was always a surprise.

Allie MacKinnon was my father’s secretary of several years. A farm wife, red haired Allie liked to have the family out to her home in the country, for chicken dinners. I remember the first time I saw and ate her apple pie. It was a bright yellow, like something on the cover of Women’s Day or McCall’s. Never one to turn down or even limit my pie intake, I loved Allie’s apple, and couldn’t stop quizzing her about the color. "You know my secret?" she grinned. "I use chicken fat instead of shortening."

My tongue felt a bit greasy upon hearing Allie’s revelation, but I still pursued a third piece.

I was pregnant during chicken pie supper season, which only enhanced one of the happiest times of my life. Carrying a child was the one time I didn’t question the meaning of existence, or my purpose in the universe. I just ate and waited. Whenever I think of the town of Chelsea, I feel a pang of gladness, recalling the church ladies who offered me seconds on homemade pie.

When Elliot was small, maybe just two and half years old, I read him a lovely version of The Three Little Kittens, with water colored illustrations of Mama Cat making pie. "If you can’t find your mittens, you shall have no pie!" the story warned. My toddler was fascinated by the whole pie making process.

"Do you want to make a pie with Momma, and even pick the berries?"

We soon were driving home from the blueberry patch, ready to re-enact the baking magic of Mama Cat. We used Elliot’s picture book as our cookbook, his berry stained finger pointing with great joy and confirmation at each completed step.

I decided it was too dangerous to cool the pie on the front porch table, what if Elliot were to pull the hot pan over on himself? We settled on a corner of the porch floor. He would run in and out while I cleaned the kitchen, reporting on the steam drifting out of the Capital ‘E.’

Suddenly, I heard a scream. My eager young baker had stepped into the pie, and the blueberry was like tar, caught between the sole of his foot and the sandal. After running it under cold water, we ran down to Dr. Ellerson’s. One giant blister, the size of his little foot, had bloomed in a matter of minutes. "You’ve gotta keep him off it," the doctor told us. Knowing my son was only off his feet when he slept, I asked, "would it be ok if we went swimming?"

"Yes, the water would be OK."

So, my little kitten and I took our blueberry pie to the river for a picnic, and neither of us was worse for the wear. For pie heals all wounds, binds all ties, crosses all borders, brings down all fences. Whether I am confused or upset, making a pie makes the most sense. I buy 50 pounds of flour at a time, for just knowing it sits on the basement landing in the big green garbage can gives me great comfort and peace of mind. Whatever the day delivers, regardless of the pain or sorrow, I can work my way through nearly anything, if I can just make a pie. Blest be the pie that binds.
Marry Me Pie Crust
3 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups white flour
1 T sugar
2 t salt
1 ¾ c. shortening or lard
1 T cider vinegar
1 large egg
½ cup water
Mix flours, sugar and salt. Cut in shortening. With fork, beat together vinegar, egg and water and add to dry mixture. Make into 5 balls. If possible, refrigerate for half hour before rolling out. Can be frozen (I put in individual freezer baggies). Also keeps in fridge for up to a week.
Momma Cat’s Apple Pie
8 good tart apples (I like Northern Spy, Cortland)
4 T flour
¾ to 1 cup of sugar
A few dabs of butter
Cinnamon and/or nutmeg
Peel, core and slice apples. We love our handy apple peeler from Canada, it is so fast.. Mix with rest of dry ingredients, place in piecrust. Dab with butter. Put on top crust, vent. Bake at 425 degrees for 45-50 minutes, or until nice and brown. Serve warm with ice cream, whipped cream, cheddar cheese. Enjoy the smiles.

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