The Year of the Piecrust

The urge to grouse about our coldest season is a temptation embraced by our region’s majority. Even the model citizens among us eventually get around to lodging their complaints against winter. But since I’m too young to be a snowbird, I’ve committed to making peace with the cold and dark.

Toward this end, I’ve found some comfort in learning to do things that promise pleasure and generate warmth along the way. A couple of years ago I took up knitting. It began with an irrational love affair with the yarn at Inish Knits in Cedar and evolved, fruitfully, with help from my brother Peter who happens to be one of those clever male knitters of the world. Soon, my hands were purling away at a dervish pace.

This year the yard gave up its late, tenacious, greenery overnight, and there was a foot of snow by morning. Such a sudden shift in the weather can be a shock if strategic plans aren’t in place; I needed more than a shovel, I needed a project. Hastily I declared this the year of the piecrust since, in any case, I gravitate toward the kitchen when the temperature plunges.

Surveying the counter, I discovered a peck of Michigan apples that needed using. “Spys are for pies,” my mother had said when she dropped by a few weeks back. I have never been a pie maker, but in this I saw an opportunity. In the past I accepted that the pastry genes had passed me over and landed in my sister, Autumn. But I wanted to bake an apple pie myself and make it both tasty and beautiful. After all, what’s better than an apple pie on a snow day?

Since I had a friend visiting and the driveway was now nearly impassable, I set my visitor to slicing apples, a task I have always enjoyed as assistant to the great pie makers in my life. With all the concentration I could muster, I took on the pastry.

“How’s it going over there?” my friend inquired hopefully. I read and reread the crust recipes from scraps of paper I’d assembled from those who excel at these things.

“Fine, fine,” I replied, methodically cutting butter and shortening into a mound of flour and salt.

I pressed the dough into a smallish disc with the heel of my hand, thus distributing the fat into the dry ingredients. Then I wrapped the pancake-shaped pastry in plastic and placed it in the refrigerator with hopes of avoiding over-handling when it came time to roll it out. I was promised that this would produce a flaky crust rather than the usual tough or crumbly result.

While the pastry chilled, my friend read aloud a short story in which the sight of Pet Milk swirling in coffee recalled, for the narrator, the sweetness of being young and adored. There was a Czech restaurant, a girl named Kate, a drink called The King Alfonse. Everything about the scene conjured the heat of new love. Lucy the puppy sprawled inelegantly beside the woodstove, her tail swish swishing in the ash and sawdust.

By then it was 10 o’clock—almost too late to be baking pies, much less eating them. But I was determined. When the pastry rolled out perfectly—a first—I pressed a hand-shaped cookie cutter into the peak of the crust to let the steam out while it baked.

The oven timer sounded as we finished shoveling a path to the woodpile. The moon was two days from full. It was after midnight. It is good to be hungry from the cold. It is worth learning the elusive art of pie pastry while icicles form along the eaves.

I remember building snow forts as a kid, and once, winter camping on the back 40 with my dad and brother Ethan. I remember a winter it snowed so much that the ground floor windows were buried overnight, and we delighted at the adventure of digging our way out. As an adult, the reality of winter is a little less enchanting. Unless, of course there is a pie in the oven.

More Pie, Please!

Here is a fabulous secret pie crust recipe, and we love this unique take on pie as a side dish.

Prefer to let someone else do the baking? Check out number 9 of our Best Eats 2009.

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