Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Confessions of an Imperfect Pie-Maker

Until very recently, the closest I had ever come to making a pie was watching my mother make one while I drank a glass of wine. Pies were simply too complicated and time-consuming for my patience and schedule, and besides, couldn't one buy a perfectly good pie at the Rainbow Foods bakery?

I have since ventured into the world of pies, and the aversion of "complicated" has transformed into "worthy challenge." Making pies, like so many other baked goods, is an art and a science. One misstep leads to another, which leads to a ball of dough in the garbage and a filling down the disposal. But once I decided to give pies a try, I met them head-on, wrestling the challenges to the ground.

My mother, an accomplished pie-maker, taught me how to make a crust. Her crusts are picturesque and perfectly flaky, so naturally she made it look very easy. Unfortunately, the sly geometry involved with trying to get a pie crust to flatten in a perfect circle, coupled with the precise moisture content, has made for evenings of cursing while sweeping flour off the floor and out of my hair.

Tonight, I attempted two pies: a banana cream and a strawberry cream. Apprehensive about the crust, due to a previous debacle involving a football-shaped crust and way too much flour, I took it very slowly. What emerged from this patience were two absolutely flawless, round crusts. I could not quite believe my luck, and actually stared at them for a few minutes with disbelieving pride.

The banana cream filling was one I had made before, with some help from Chef Matt, but buoyed by my perfect crusts, I was sure I could do it alone. Turns out, tempering egg yolks with hot liquid is a delicate business, which left my lovely vanilla pudding full of scrambled eggs. I decided that people would, in fact, notice scrambled eggs in their pie, so I first tried to sieve the eggs out before furiously throwing the whole mixture away. Not wanting to need Matt to bail me out, I tried again, and managed to avoid breakfast food in my dessert.

The strawberry cream was much easier, although I did examine the recipe for a minute, stumped, as I determined the best way to mash fresh strawberries. When the potato masher and potato ricer did not do the trick, I gave up and used my hands.

What I love most about baking pies is the overwhelming satisfaction that comes with conquering a difficult task. Crusts and fillings are frustrating undertakings for infrequent bakers like myself, but I have found that a hole left by talent can be filled adequately by persistence and precision. When I manage to make a beautiful lattice-top cherry pie, or even a banana cream with no scrambled eggs, I feel pride in something that is not one of my gifts. And honestly, that might be a greater sort of pride than something that comes naturally.

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