It all started with National Pie Day and just sort of snowballed from there. A colleague directed me to http://www.piecouncil.org/national.htm on January 23 (I may have also received an e-card in celebration of said Pie Day from said coworker) and now I am dreaming of Orlando. All those years of baking – partially to fill time in unhappy apartments with horrible roommates and partially to gain acceptance among my colleagues who inevitably got to eat the food and then told me they liked me – should certainly lead to something that might actually give my life direction, purpose and meaning? Or is that too much of a stretch?
So…like I said, National Pie Day snowballed to delusions of grandeur and participating in an actual bake-off with actual people who bake actual pies. But before I throw myself to the wolves, I decided I needed some practice…which is where the whole Julie-and-Julia-like-blog-leading-up-to-something-that-will-surely-change-my-life-exercise comes in (my apologies to Julie Powell…I hope I do not get sued for libel. I am obviously new to “blogging” and have to plead ignorance on whether or not it’s kosher to mention a real-life chef/blogger).
For those of you who haven’t gotten lost yet in my Woolfian ramblings (oh how I love modernism), in summary: I bake. There is a pie contest. And so I am practicing.
Coincidentally, I have a friend who also bakes. We’ll call her Regina. She was already coming over to my apartment to watch the Super Bowl last weekend and so we decided to make things interesting and each bake a pie. Regina is from Chicago and wanted to make a “Bears pie.” I’ve made this joke before, but I’ll make it again: consequently, I was “saddled” with the “Colts pie.” Much trash talk ensued. And while I admit I was super-confident during the week and called her – and her baking – many a foul name, this poise withered as soon as I set foot in the kitchen.
On Sunday morning, I found myself completely out of sorts. I was a nervous wreck after all the intimidating banter. Plus, I had gone to an alumni event to watch a basketball game with another friend the night before and she mentioned seeing Paula Deen on Oprah (my mother loves both Paula Deen and Oprah…and actually gave me a Paula Deen dessert book for my birthday). So…it certainly didn’t help matters when I took Paula’s book off the shelf (since I had talked about her the night before) and flipped to the pie section. There are so many tips that I’m sure are meant to be innocuous but somehow felt like premonitions about everything I could do to screw up my crust. Was I handling it too much? Had I added too much water?? And…what would my aunt say??
My aunt spent years teaching me about how to make the perfect crust…and yet mine are always ugly. They taste fine (I believe the CEO of the company I worked for declared, “Whoever made this pie deserves a raise…” when I brought in an apple pie over the summer), but they always look funny. They are crude crusts that betray the baker’s struggle. I never know how to vent them and I always end up just slashing them with haphazard marks after giving up hope of ever latching on to a trademark design. Surely cutting holes in the top opens up an opportunity for unparalleled creativity…but, in this particular case, how would one accommodate the Colts?
I put these thoughts aside and concentrated on the innards. As I was peeling the apples, I was reminded of the line in Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks tells his son a bunch of random facts about his mother that made her the truly unique person he loved. One of them was something like, “She could peel an apple in one long strip.” As I peeled apples in many strips and they fell into my garbage can, I wondered whether or not she made a lot of pies and that was why she peeled so many apples.
But my thoughts were interrupted by the smell of something burning. (I learned long ago to take the battery out of the fire alarm before putting anything in the oven as I don’t really have much in the way of ventilation in my apartment.) I opened the door and sure enough something on the bottom was smoking like crazy. I panicked! I still had vegetarian chili to make and laundry to hide before my guests arrived! I couldn’t afford the delay! But I had no choice. I opened the back door and a window in the bathroom and waited for the oven to cool down…
My apple wedger was a Christmas gift a few years ago from Mom and makes apple pie prep soo much easier (I love it almost as much as the pie crust shield – an ode to which is forthcoming…). However, the apple core is kind of hard to get out of the wedger sometimes and once I gave myself a nasty cut with it in the process…so I’m always a little paranoid with the wedger. No injuries this time. (Although these products do remind me of my beloved insulated baked good tote that nevertheless gave rise to the infamous “Ma’am, you’re leaking…” episode on the Subway. That was my fault though – I was convinced I could transport a round pie in what is obviously meant to be a rectangular carrier.)
After the apples had been sliced and diced and the spices lined up on the counter, it was Go Time – back to the crust. My mother gave me my great-grandmother’s rolling pin the last time I was home and I tried to use it out of solidarity, but I found it didn’t work as well for rolling out an already pesky crust and quickly reverted to my old standby. I rolled out the bottom without much incident. It was in the pie pan, waiting to be filled up with apples and sugar and spices and butter. Then I got a paper cut on the sugar bag! But, I bravely ferried on.
And then it was just me and that bastard of a top crust. I rolled it out just like the bottom and yet it laughed in my face as I begged and pleaded with it to be round. Edges broke off and fled to far corners of my floured surface and cackled with glee. I forced them back and willed them to be part of the round whole and to fit on top of the apples. And yet it was not meant to be. I found myself in the midst of a veritable crust crisis.
“This crust will never do!” I thought. “Especially not since it is in a contest and I am representing the Indianapolis Colts!”
I decided to play hardball. I wouldn’t just try to cover this pie with a paltry half-crust. I’d go ahead and make another half-crust so I had in essence a full crust and therefore plenty of dough to roll out to cover the damn thing.
And yet it was still hard. It didn’t want to be round or big enough to tuck all my little apple wedges in safely. It protested. I refused to give up! And finally it broke in two.
I *thought* I could remember long, long ago my aunt told me that water essentially acts like “glue” and you can piece a troublesome crust back together by dabbing it and gently coaxing it back into shape. I, however, was a bit overzealous in my application and ended up instead with a sticky mess. “Sticky” is one of the cardinal sins of pie-making, per my aunt. When a crust is sticky, you have to add flour to combat the stickiness – but you also have to be careful not to work it too much or you’ll end up with a tough crust. It’s a very delicate operation! So, imagine my dismay when I realize that I’d added water and flour and worked it over and over again…and I didn’t even have any Crisco left! My first tub of Crisco – gone. What would normally be an occasion to celebrate ruined because I didn’t have enough left to make another crust to repair the damage I inflicted on the initial crust.
I decided to attempt horse shoe vents on the top of this obviously disappointing crust and to call it a day. I had company coming and was still wearing pajamas.
The actual baking was without incident…and my competition eventually arrived. Luckily, she had opted for a custard pie and had struggled with it setting (I had heard rumors of a lattice that had truly made me shake in my boots…although I never would have admitted it at the time) and so we both had our crosses to bear, I suppose. Hers was a more literal interpretation of team spirit (see above). My horse shoe vents were sort of obscured in baking (you can try to see above…). People ate them though. So I think it was a draw.