My Quest to Make the Perfect Pie

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.

"A Apple Pie" by Kate Greenaway (1886)

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.

 


  • Image 1: A Apple Pie by Kate Greenaway (Frederick Warne; printed by W & J Mackay Limited, Chatham from original woodblock designs engraved in 1886)
  • Image 2: Photo by Kristin of Meringue Bake Shop in Anaheim, California

 

6 thoughts on “My Quest to Make the Perfect Pie

  1. What a great piece 😉 This is particularly relevant for me, as I have never made pie myself. But it is my boyfriend’s favorite dessert so I am planning on giving it my best shot. I’ve been doing a lot of research (by that I mean reading blog posts on pies and eating pies myself) and last night a friend let me help her make some tarts. Tarts are entirely different, but these are my baby steps. I know my first pie will not be perfect, but it will also be a labor of love.

  2. There are two types of people in the kitchen–perfectionist control freaks, and mediocre cooks. Great post, Martha!

  3. It is so nice to strut my inner perfectionist. Very few people complain about cooks or bakers being control freaks in the kitchen, for just the reason you say, Ken. But why don’t we expect the same of political discourse or blog-writing?

  4. i too love baking and cooking for that matter. Like the blank page when you start to write, nothing compares with the mound of “stuff” that miraculously gets created into a delicious pie or a fabulous stew. Call it scince, call it alchemy, call it an altered state, i love where cooking takes me. Specifically, out of myself. Bake away Martha!

  5. A really interesting melding of many aspects of life in this essay. There is something timeless about baking; pies in particular. All the modern doodads don’t really add much. Every feminist stands right beside a depression granny, or someone baking in World War II when many ingredients were rationed. We yearn for a delicate symmetry, and like painting, it’s easy to do too little or too much. My mother-in-law, who listens to Rush Limbaugh and believes, I am sure, that her son lives in a household where people live like animals, is an astounding pie maker. In 84 years she has worked out every nuance. It’s the harmonious plain on which we meet. As well you point out, mademoiselle Martha, baking is a surprisingly delicate expression of the self. And for all these writers straining towards immortality, it’s temporal qualities are divine. Laurie Weisz

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