Words by Madalyn Owen; illustrations by Joanna Stacy
The first time I baked a pie with my grandmother, I slashed my finger open with an apple peeler and was berated for almost getting blood in the apples.
Baking pies is serious business.
In typical American fashion, my family’s holiday gatherings consist of large dinners, laughter, and pies. Lots of pies. The responsibility of pie making always falls onto the shoulders of my grandmother, affectionately referred to as Mamie, as she has always been much too cool to be a “grandma.” I began helping Mamie bake pies when I was 12, and in her small kitchen, I learned so much more than simple baking techniques.
Mamie is a small, stylish, Irish woman, with flashy jewelry. She gives the best hugs you will ever receive in your life, and will probably give you one the first time she meets you. When she talks her hands become part of her words and move about wildly in time with the conversation. It is as if her hands are connected with the stories that spill from her lips. Her hands tell me as many stories as the ones that come out of her mouth and when Mamie sinks her hands into pie dough, she is immediately able to tell you whether or not the pie crust will roll out successfully.
I always make sure to double check with her before transferring the pie dough unto the pastry board, asking if the dough is ready to roll out. She will come over and knead the dough, as she gives her famous warning to take care not to knead it too much, else it get overworked and not roll out. We will then transfer the dough unto the flour laden pastry board, and add another coat of flour onto our hands and rolling pin. Mamie and I are messy bakers, by the time the pies are finished we wear a layer of flour on our faces, and there’s usually equally as much on the floor.
“You can’t be neat when you’re baking a pie,” she says, spilling flour off the pastry board as she rolls out the pie crust.
The pie crust is trickiest, and also the most critical, part of a successful pie. Add too much water and it will be too wet to work with, but add too much flour and it will crumble as you try to roll it out. The crust is the glue that holds the pie together, and as such can make or break a pie. The recipe that Mamie introduced me to when I first started baking with her, has stood the test of time, always creating the perfect golden brown, flaky crust. We have never used a recipe card when putting together a pie crust, as the recipe, so frequently used in our family, has become second nature to my grandmother.
Unfortunately, in pie baking, everything does not always go according to plan, even if the recipe is followed to a T. Sometimes the pie dough does not roll out as large as you need for the pie dish, or it starts to crumble when you pick it up. When this happens, Mamie and I will take to the outer sides of the pie dough, pulling off any extra dough and patching any holes that have been created in transferring the dough into the pie dish. Sometimes even the patching technique fails, and we must resign ourselves to making the top crust into a crumble crust. A crumble crust is not ideal, but works just as well.
Of course, there is not too much that is as satisfying as rolling out the perfect pie crust. Mamie is always on the lookout for new techniques that will aid in rolling out that perfect crust, and often will give me clippings from magazine and newspaper articles detailing different pie baking techniques, with the assurance that “You’re never too old to learn something new.”
As we continue baking in the controlled chaos of her small kitchen, Mamie will continue to give more of these tidbits of advice. With each piece of advice, I realize that her advice doesn’t just apply to pie baking.
And if baking pies were a metaphor for life, here’s what I’ve learned: Sometimes the crust doesn’t roll out they way you want it to. When this happens, a crumble crust can be just as effective.