Sunday, April 30, 2006

Pie Baking

Someone told me they were breaking the cardinal rule of blogging and requested a specific topic. I’ve never heard of such a rule, and it seems like silly tech etiquette to me, so I’m ready to break the rule. It’s just that the topic doesn’t have anything to do with kids, and this is, after all, "Lost in Kids." Not only that, this person asked for a topic that they think will be of great interest and astound everyone. But this story only demonstrates that life can take ironic turns for the worst.

The topic request is: discuss my legendary pie baking. This person tasted my incredible pies years ago and has heard family tales about them. The tales are true.

All my life I had a fixation and an aficionado’s appreciation for pastry. Especially pies. Many years ago, my older brother had a girlfriend who noted that I bought Mrs. Smith’s and Banquet frozen pies by the dozen. I told her I loved pies, always have. She asked me why I didn’t bake them myself, and I replied that I was a 23 year old bachelor and didn’t know how. She offered to help me bake an apple pie, and it turned out great. I immediately bought three dozen apples and started baking pies.

I discovered pie recipes, experimented in crusts and oven temperatures, discovered subtleties in pie plates, and found out for myself the distinction between corn starch, flour and tapioca. I was eating four or five nine inch homemade pies every week, so it didn’t take long for me to become very experienced. I started baking them for others to see and eat, so it became a hobby and ultimately an art form. I tasted other pies by women who were great cooks, and I discovered I was better than they were, although every now and then I would run into someone who didn’t know the difference and would choose their Mother’s pie over mine. Now that’s blind love, but I approve.

Over the years my pies got better and better. I remember watching a TV show with Julia Child and her guest baked the “perfect pie.” I didn’t learn a single thing. I remember Julia asked the lady why she wasn’t rolling the pastry from the center out to the edge. The lady knew the correct answer. It’s not necessary; it makes no difference. The lady knew her pie baking, but she seemed to lack enthusiasm, as if she wasn’t hungry for pastry when she was in the womb.

I was not a self-taught pie baker. I learned from recipes and experimenting with them, and from reading and rereading books and chapters from books on the subject of pie baking. I am competitive and this was a driving force in my desire to become a better pie baker. There were moments of drastic improvements, and I want to give credit to my mother-in-law, a woman of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, who quickly taught me how to elevate my crusts to a new level.

The greatest story about my pie baking was probably the one about the pie bake-off between me and Margaret. Margaret’s mother won state fair pie contests in Illinois, Texas, and California, and Margaret had all her recipes and all her pie baking skills passed on to her. I made a casual remark that I made the best pie in the world. Boy, did that set Margaret off. She challenged me to a pie baking contest and was surprised I took her up on the offer even after hearing of the prowess and ancestral skills of her family. I told her if anyone could bake a better pie than me, I wanted to taste it. In fact, I was looking forward to losing. To beat me, she was going to have to bake one excellent pie.

Poor Margaret. We had our contest at a family picnic. Her lemon meringue pie was the best lemon meringue pie I ever ate and was, without question, better than my lemon meringue pie. The problem for Margaret was lemon meringue pie is one of my worst because of the meringue. My specialty was fruit pies, and knowing Margaret was good, I went with my best. I baked a deep dish, ten inch gooseberry pie from frozen, fresh gooseberries my in-laws brought to me from Indiana. Margaret bit into my gooseberry pie and without hesitating but with an almost sad expression said, “You win.” I tasted hers and agreed. She asked about my crust, and I gave her a few pointers. She used a similar recipe to mine using eggs and vinegar, an old Pennsylvania Dutch recipe, but she slightly overworked her dough when mixing, probably didn’t keep it cold enough, and it was a tad dry when rolled out because she used too much flour on her rolling surface. She listened and understood because she was an incredible pie baker and was willing to learn, even from a guy who was a truck driver at the time. I tried to learn from her about meringue, but I had already read her tips in cookbooks, and I really needed to view and witness her whipping the egg whites. I listened carefully, but I never mastered meringue.

I moved to Albuquerque in 1986. The moment I bought my first house here, I planted a pie cherry tree. I watered and fertilized and pruned and prayed for growth. We are talking a dream come true for a cherry pie lover. However, age had caught up with me. My cholesterol levels had risen like a Saturn rocket, my gut had increased in volume to the point that I looked like I was in my third trimester, and due to imperfect practice my pie baking skills slipped away like the hairs on my head. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect, and I had baked pies imperfectly for too many years. I was rushing the pies because I was in a hurry, making them from Splenda to lower the calories, and rolling out the crusts to .0365 inch thick to cut down on the fat.

I will now relate all this to kids, for after all, this is a "Lost in Kids" blog site. I was reading poetry aloud to my fourth grade students three weeks ago in order to familiarize them with the genre, teaching them to write poetry, and it all culminated in “Poetry Week.” One of the poems I read aloud to them was “Casey at the Bat.” That is how I feel when I think of my old pie baking skills. “…....But there is no joy in Mudville: Mighty Casey has struck out.”


Laura said...

So an era is over? The incredible pie making is no more?

I relate to Margaret. I overwork my pie dough to the point of silly putty. I will never master pie making and it is my favorite dessert.

I had your gooseberry pie one holiday and I had never tasted anything like it. I probably did not compliment it it's due; I am sure at that age I had some nightclub to hit. Now, I would just rather have the pie.

Anonymous said...

with a soundtack and some creative casting (which would feature me as a a braeburn apple) i think you have a hit movie on your hands!

deliciously yours,