17 December 2009

The Art of Pie (Art, not Science)

On a recent dreary Saturday morning, already jam-packed with plans, I added one more layer to the docket: Visit the U-District Farmers market to commune with the farmers and load my tote with a variety of heirloom and organic apples.

Trying not to get too off-track (I'd calculated a max of 20 minutes to spend at the market before running to Starbucks for a cuppa and hitting the road for my next appointment), I intended to make a quick circle-tour of the stands, scanning the selections and jotting mental notes of where to return. Of course, the first stand teemed with apples and butternut squash - both on my list.

What the hell.

I leapt in and bought a couple of Golden Russets to start the collection, plus a squash to stow away for a post-Thanksgiving cous-cous dish.

From there, it was anarchy in the best way possible. Methodical plan out the window, I wend my to whatever spoke to me, loading my bag with the golden and red orbs. The Golden Russets rested next to Waltanas which sat atop some staple-favorite Honeycrisps which laid near the squash. This was the first step in the right direction. For, as pie maven Kate McDermott attests, the making of a pie is an art - not a science.

And this, dear reader, is what changed everything.

A few weeks prior, I'd taken Kate's Art of the Pie class - a 3-hour, hands-on pie-making clinic. Of all the formal cooking classes I've had yet, this one by far was the best. We learned the history and science of the apples going in to our pie. And we got to ask (and ask and ask) questions: "Why the King Arthur flour red-bag flour?" (It's silky and light.) "Why is everything kept cold?" (So when your hot hands plunge into the bowl, the whole mixture's temperature doesn't skyrocket and mar the integrity of your crust.) "How do you know it's done?" (Involve the senses. Bend your ear - carefully - over the pie; listen for the sizzle and the 'whump.' Turn your nose to the kitchen - sniff for the heavenly aroma of apples and spice and all things nice. Use your sight to observe the pie; is the pastry golden brown and the fruit/sugar slightly oozing from the vent holes?)

But the biggest revelation - dare I say epiphany - of the experience was tossing out preconceived notions that making pie is a precise, exact rite. Sure, Kate set out mixing utensils, should we choose to use them; but most all of our group elected the best utensils God gave us - our paws. Being this close to the pastry really helped me know when it was ready; rather than rely on a spoon and pastry cutter to know when the dough was holding together, I swirled and mopped the mixture with my mitts, adding a touch of water or a spoonful more flour, until it started to pull away from the sides of the bowl and cling together.

Same went for the filling: we used knives to cut/core the fruit and a few measuring spoons to dose out sugar/flour/spices. But it was never an exact science -- add a dash more nutmeg should you choose, or another pinch of salt. Don't sweat measuring your flour precisely, leveling it with a knife. Don't even think about grabbing a sifter.

In fact, the only science of the whole procedure was the appearance of a tool that looked like it belonged in a laboratory rather than a kitchen; this refractometer measured the sugar-content of each fruit, so we'd know how much additional sweetness to add to the filling.

I've long loved pies but long loathed the preciseness of baking. I've even set my identity by it. "I'm a cook, not a baker, because I don't like to measure," is a sentence often flowing from my mouth. Kate's class has changed me.

After all, it is meant to be a work of art, like the beauty of a marbled pastry, flecked with fat:

Or the chunky heaps of seasoned and spiced apples, waiting in a mixing bowl:

Or a pre-baked pie, glossy and glimmering with sprinkles of sugar:

And the way the pie deepens in color - maturing and settling with heat and time once pulled freshly from the oven:

So back to the Farmers market finds. Experimentation and playfulness (not strict order) lent a nice touch. The resulting melange of textures and colors and flavors was tart yet sweet, nicely balanced. (Not equipped with a refractometer, I taste-tested a slice of each apple before adding it to the bowl and dosed in sugars and spices according to my tongue.) Add to this my further experimentation with flours (I tried the King Arthur "white whole wheat") and a vegan shortening - not lard - and I truly made this pie my own creation.

I do not claim to be an expert by any means. The crust was a bit wheaty (I blame the flour) and next time I'd try a different ratio of butter to shortening (more of the former). Maybe even toss in a tablespoon of sugar to the pastry, for kicks. But I am an aspiring artist, trying out my own techniques and brush strokes, finding my voice, and feeling freer by the minute - loose of the previous constraints and shackles of the science. This is art.


  1. The recipe is just a spring board for your journey! I'm so pleased you are continuing to experiment with the dough and crust. Keep us posted.
    Kate McDermott

  2. You had me chuckling at the "I'm a cook, not a baker." I say the same thing. But I'm taking Kate's class next week, so perhaps that will change!

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, Kate! I most definitely will keep you posted.

    And Tara, enjoy your class - can't wait to hear all about it!

  4. I got your v.m. and it reminded me I hadn't checked this site in too long--now all I want to do is go make (and eat!) pie! Sounds totally delish. :) And the farmer's market browsing session sounds lovely.