Last week a blogger, Beth Howard, contacted me via Facebook to say that she'd posted a story I wrote a decade ago on her Facebook page. A New York-based editor, she said, had read my story back then, hung onto it, and sent it to this blogger, because her thing is pie, and that was the subject of my story: pie, and making pie. It was a nice thrill, to think that this editor (who I know by name and respect) had hung onto it, and to have my story resurrected in that way.
But reading a story, particularly a personal essay, that you wrote long ago—in this case, long before I was required to take my shoes off at the airport!—is a bit like stumbling upon an old box of photos in terms of the mix of nostalgia and cringe that it induces. The most alarming thing about reading this particular story was seeing that I had made the pie crust with—yikes!—margarine. The reason I did this was very simple: this is how I was taught to make pies the summer before, when I worked as the pie baker at Loaves & Fishes, which is where I learned how to make pies in the first place. Loaves & Fishes is a famously expensive food store in the famously expensive Hamptons. The idea behind that store is, in a nutshell, to produce homemade food for people who do not cook at home, no matter how beautiful and well-equipped their kitchens. On my inaugural day at L&F, Anna, an older German woman who owns and runs the place along with her daughter, explained to me that margarine made for a tender crust, where an all-butter crust would turn out tough. If this was good enough for their moneyed (and I presumed discerning) clientele, I figured it was as good as it could be. But that's where I was wrong...
I've learned a lot in the 12 or 15 years since the summer I wrote about in the pie story—about life, about what people are willing to pay for and why, and, of course, about pie. Today, with the same casual, knowing ease with which I might slip off my slip-on shoes as I approach the security check at the airport, I can confirm that this bit about the butter making for a tougher crust is true. But I've also learned that margarine and all its artificiality isn't the only solution. The one thing that butter has that margarine doesn't is flavor. The answer is to use a mix of butter and not butter. You can use butter plus margarine, which I did for several years. Butter and Crisco, which I believe is Julia Child's formula, but don't quote me on that. Butter plus lard, which let's face it must be the best choice because anything with lard is better than anything with a substitute for lard. Or, like my friend Bob Blumer does, butter plus bacon fat (aka: lard).
Looking forward, I can only imagine what I will have learned ten years from now. One thing I do know is that a life where you are making pie (no matter what kind of fat you put in the crust!), that is, a life where you have the inclination and take the time to make pie, and wherein you have the friends and family with which to enjoy pie—this is a good life. As for the crust, I'll probably go the lard route, followed by Crisco in a pinch. But I'll definitely always make my own pie dough. The process of making it—taking it, that, for me, is the whole point of pie.
However You Slice It, There's No Gift More Honest
I discovered the power of pie on an August night a few summers back as I walked across my small, quiet street barefoot, carrying a just-baked, still-bubbling pie with two hands, to introduce myself to my new neighbors.
I'd never felt quite so American, and I'd certainly never done anything so darn-right neighborly. But I'd just learned to make pie, and the nectarines at the farmers market were ripe for the occasion, and, well, something came over me. As luck would have it, he turned out to be a poet and she a gardener, and there we sat at an old bistro table, drinking chilled white wine and telling our stories and falling in love the way new friends sometimes do. When it comes to bearing gifts, there's just nothing like a fruit pie.
Since then, fruit pie has become my currency of goodwill. Andy and Elyce have a baby and the first thing I think of, because they're from New England, is blueberry pie. A friend gives me a tennis lesson and, since he's from Georgia, I find myself slicing up a bowl full of peaches the very next morning. Two firemen rescue my cat from high up a pine tree and I have no choice: two pies to go.
It's a special feeling, bringing someone a pie. Unlike with a batch of cookies, where you might keep a few for yourself, with pie you just give up the whole thing. If you're lucky, as I was that first night, they might cut it right there and give you a slice. Most importantly, though, is that when you bring someone a fruit pie, they are nothing short of amazed. Amazed that fruit pies are actually made. Amazed that you made it. Amazed that you made it for just for them.
Before that summer, I, too, would have been in awe of any human being capable of bringing a pie into the world, because I was in total fear of making dough. The ice water thing threw me into a panic. And rolling out dough seemed like some kind of impossible art form, learned from Grandmother or not at all. But once I mastered the four essentials of making dough--chilled butter or margarine; not quite mixing it all the way with the flour; rolling the dough from the inside out and not any more than you need to; and the most satisfying thing of all, crimping the edge--I became a pie-making fool.
I made pies for all occasions and proudly took them all over town. And the pies changed me. That first night with my new friends, I went to bed thinking about how they'd been together 20 years and were still happy, still making their art. I dreamed that night of a simple life with a man for whom I could make pies and with whom I could sit in a garden and tell my stories. Fruit pie is humble. It has that effect.
(NOTE on 3/14: Since it's not plum season, you have your choice: get your hands on some quality frozen plums--and they'll be almost just as good. Or use the equivalent in apples. You can keep everything else the same. Fruit pie isn't rocket science, especially not the fruit part.)
3 sticks margarine, 2 sticks unsalted butter, very cold and cubed, plus 1 stick Crisco, or 4 ounces lard
4 cups flour
3 tablespoons ice water
31/2-4 cups tart plums (or apples!), sliced
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch each of clove and nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup milk
1 egg yolk
Sugar for dusting
In food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse flour and butter and Crisco/lard together until integrated into a coarse crumb, but not totally combined. Drizzle in water and continue to pulse, until just combined. On work surface, form a ball with mixture. Chill at least 1/2 hour.
Cut ball of dough into quarters and roll one quarter about 1/4-inch thick and place into pie pan and cut off the excess dough to edge of pan. Roll out second ball. Using cookie cutter, cut hole directly in center of dough and set aside.
In a bowl, mix filling ingredients and pour into prepared pie pan. Place butter pieces evenly over plums. Drape top crust over filled pie pan. Cut excess top crust, leaving about 3/4 inch to hang over. Fold top crust, tucking it under bottom crust. Crimp edges with thumb and forefinger. Mix milk and egg yolk and brush lightly on pastry. Sprinkle handful of sugar liberally over pie. Bake at 425 degrees until golden brown and fruit inside has broken down and is giving off ample juices, usually about 50 minutes to 1 hour.