Zen and the Art of Pie Making

September 20, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 3 min read


I was at Whole Foods having a tantrum about vanilla paste, simultaneously aware of the cultural type I was embodying with obnoxious ease, and genuinely annoyed about the paste scenario. “You could always call ahead,” said the employee who had informed me of their lack of vanilla paste, who I’m also sure is a perfectly nice man who rises in the morning hoping to make the best of his day. “I did call ahead,” I said in a tone of voice I modeled after Gregory Peck, “I was told you had it.”

Using passive voice to withering effect on a grocery store employee is not what I had expected from my Friday night, but it’s where I ended up when I decided to learn how to make great pie in a weekend.

I have very few absolute goals in life — as far as where I want to be in five years, how much money I want to have, or places to see before I die — but I really want to be good at making pies. Its attractions are threefold. First, a good pie is universally welcome. Second, mediocre pies — from grocery store bakeries or home cooks who use Crisco — are far too common. Third, only a portion of good pie-making can be taught, the rest is learned by experience. It’s not just cooking, it’s craft.

coverMost of the great pie I’ve had in my life has been at Hoosier Mama Pie Company, my favorite place in Chicago. Owner Paula Haney left a pastry chef job at a more upscale restaurant to focus on perfecting America’s dessert in her own shop in 2009, and the results are divine. A bite of Hoosier Mama pie is like everything good about the world, in your mouth. (A friend of mine once went into the shop and asked if they would let him volunteer. “I’ll chop fruit or wash dishes, anything you want,” he said, “I just want to be involved.” His offer was politely declined.) When Haney published The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie earlier this summer, it felt like a personal gift, like she was rooting for me.

I decided to put myself through pie boot camp, making four pies in one day — Strawberry Rhubarb, Maple Pecan, Hoosier Sugar Cream, and Lemon Chess — and inviting 10 friends over to eat them. My main goal was the crust, the deceptively simple foundation of a good pie. When you’re making pie crust, every detail is important: the temperature of the ingredients, how long you spend on each step, how long you wait in between each step, how much water you add, how long you knead the dough, and whether you’re chronically forgetful about flouring the roller (that’s me).

Haney spent a summer perfecting her crust recipe, and provides 20 pictures of what the dough should look like at various steps. There are instructions, yes, but you’re making all the decisions about whether the dough feels crumbly, soft, cool, or relaxed enough to move on to the next step. The stinger is, a mistake at any point in the process can ruin the crust, like the bad bulb in a string of Christmas lights. No matter how many crusts you’ve made, you still have to pay attention to each one and be able to adjust. I can say that the fourth crust I made that day was better than the first, but that only made me realize how much better I can get. It’s no mistake that on the cover, the word “wisdom” in the book’s subtitle — “Recipes, Techniques, and Wisdom from the Hoosier Mama Pie Co.” — is printed about three times larger than all the other words.

The book wants you to understand pie. The recipes have origin stories, there’s a section titled “In Defense of Canned Pumpkin,” a sidebar on the history of Crisco (spoiler: it’s cautionary), and a Pie Dough Troubleshooting Guide, but the real message is that you need to practice. You may also need to traverse the city in search of vanilla paste.

At one a.m. the night before my party, as I was putting the last dough round into the fridge to rest overnight, pie crust took on greater meaning for me. A great pie is a product of both skill and wisdom; as, I believe, is a great life. You make a long string of intuitive decisions and hope they alchemize into something beautiful. That’s why each good pie that comes out of the oven felt like a win to me; it feels like a small reassurance that you’re good at life. Plus, delicious.

Photo Credit: Tyler Core

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.

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