Easy as …

Ashley_Pie_3PHOTOS BY COLIN RIGLEY, AS USUAL

I’m an appalling cook. I’m afraid of the oven. Every time I try to chop or dice something I almost lose a finger. Simple recipes and instructions baffle me. It’s as though every shred of intelligence flees the moment I walk into a kitchen.

I can’t deny that my disinterest in cooking probably plays a major role in my failures. If I had sufficient motivation, I’m convinced that I could overcome my fear enough to become a passable cook. But the truth is I just don’t care. My boyfriend does all our cooking, and he actually enjoys the chore and does it well. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure he’d enjoy the occasional reprieve but I try to make it up to him by taking on other chores that he doesn’t like–mainly tasks pertaining to laundry and cat litter. So it all evens out. And while the subject of my ineptitude in the kitchen is something of a joke at work, it’s something I don’t feel all that badly about. I’ve managed to survive thus far, notwithstanding a few nearly-lost fingers and a handful of near-poisoning incidents back when I was in high school. And there are plenty of things I’m proficient at that would baffle plenty of people, like how to write a book (note that I didn’t say how to write a good book because that would be bragging) or how to coordinate a photo shoot with a dozen people dressed as Street Fighter characters. These might not qualify as “traditional” skills, but they bring me a great deal more joy than spending half an hour cooking spaghetti that I’m just going to eat in 10 minutes.

There is one exception, though: pie.

I love making pies. It all started with The Waitress. Or maybe with Pushing Daisies; I don’t recall which I watched first. Jenna Hunterson (the waitress of the title The Waitress) is, in many respects, a person I would prefer not to emulate. She’s in an abusive relationship, loveless marriage, works a minimum wage job, but–and this is an important “but”–she has the ability to make incredible pies, pies that stir powerful emotions in people, pies that I would argue giving her a purpose in a life that seemingly has none. The scenes in which she makes these pies are almost pornographically beautiful. And, for the first time, I found myself wanting to do more than eat the food I saw in a movie. I wanted to make those pies. Weird.

Then I started watching Pushing Daisies and found myself driving to Marie Callender’s to buy pie on a weekly basis. Before that, I’d never been a particular fan of pie. As much as I love desserts, I was always more partial to cake, cupcakes, candy, ice cream, basically anything but pie. There was a pie in a restaurant in Salinas called Lemon Supreme Pie and I adored that pie, but it was more of an exception than anything else. But beyond the fact that it’s physically impossible to watch an episode of Pushing Daisies without wanting to eat pie, the show drives home several other points about the dessert. Chiefly, that it can take you home. Pie is comfort. Pie is family. It’s all those cliches that I thought were sort of ridiculous growing up. And then I became an adult and everything got just a little more complicated and I started to understand why a food like pie might be the only or easiest way of going home. Maybe you don’t even know where it is geographically anymore, but you can still get a small taste of it through pie.

The primary character in Pushing Daisies is named Ned, but as often as not they refer to him as The Piemaker, because that’s what he does, but also who he is. He bakes these pies in a restaurant with a pie crust facade, called The Pie Hole. It’s dreamy, all of it, the restaurant, the pies, the pie maker, the world they occupy.

So, under the influence of one slightly depressing movie and a television show about a man who brings dead people back to life, I prepared for a new hobby. I did this the way I do everything–with extreme enthusiasm, too much research, and probably too much commitment as well. I bought pie tins and a bag of flour so enormous I could barely lift it off the ground. And I bought Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie.

I was determined. My boyfriend Colin seemed doubtful and alarmed. Besides the fact that the kitchen was his domain and he knew there was a very good chance I would misplace all the utensils, his range of fears included much larger concerns like me burning down the house or chopping off a finger.

I spent a lot of time thumbing through that beast of a cookbook before settling on my first pie: apple-pear with a cheddar crust. In many respect it was an Ashley_Pie_1unlikely choice. I don’t like apple pie, and the recipe called for baking cheddar into the crust which added a minute degree of added complexity to the endeavor. But I successfully made the pie, and actually really liked it. It’s become my go-to pie around the holidays, and while it can be a little stressful throwing together three pies before we leave to visit our families, it feels good to finally be able to contribute something homemade. Usually I buy something from the store as my contribution to the holiday feast, and while I know it’s for the best–no one wants food poisoning over the holidays–I am very aware that my efforts don’t match those of my relatives. So, finally, I can bring something that I made, that won’t bring physical harm to those who partake.

For someone who sits at a desk all day, the appeal of doing something tactile is obvious. Shoveling your fingers through a small mountain of flour and sugar is glorious, even when sugar particles find their way beneath your fingernails. Rubbing chunks of butter and fat into the mixture is at once pleasurable and absolutely disgusting. I enjoy the dance around the kitchen, the motion of the rolling pin, and the control required to make sure I don’t tear the dough. And it’s a small way for me to feel like I’m creating a sense of the season. Pies belong to autumn, even when they aren’t made with pumpkin. When the landscape is brown and brittle and everyone’s praying for rain–even those of us who don’t pray–it’s hard to believe that summer is actually over and autumn, chief among seasons, is truly upon us. So you pretend to feel a chill in the air, even if you know it’s just a make-believe chill. You plan your Halloween costume imagining that by the time you finally get to wear it, the weather might have cooled somewhat. And you bake pies. Even though it makes your house even hotter than it was before.

So why am I rambling about pies and  kitchen misadventures right now? I’ve spent the weekend baking three pies, two of which I’ve never made before Ashley_Pie_2(which generally means they take a great deal longer to make because I reread every step, question the implications of each word–what does it mean when it says I should add the chocolate after the butter is “partially” melted? Does that mean half of the butter is melted? Most of the butter?). I’m making these pies because one of my oldest–in terms of years of friendship, not actual age–friends, Kristi, is getting married in a little more than two weeks and she asked me to make a couple of pies for her wedding. And yes, this is the third wedding reference on this blog in a week, which is definitely a record because it’s rare for me to attend a single wedding per year; two weddings in a two-month span is just obscene.

Kristi’s getting married in Indiana, and Colin and I plan to fly to Indiana for the wedding and then fly to Istanbul after the wedding for our vacation. Flying from Indiana to Istanbul is probably the perfect definition of culture shock, but I’m looking forward to my first visit to Indiana as well as my first visit to Turkey. Apparently Indiana actually has seasons, so Kristi is incorporating many elements of autumn into her wedding. That helped when trying to determine which pies I wanted to prepare for her wedding. Of course, there were a number of other factors as well, including the fact that I wouldn’t be able to bring my equipment with me; the fact that making three different pies at the same time can be difficult, so I’d probably want to tone down the difficulty level; and forcing me to think about what would appeal to the greatest number of people.

I settled on three pies: my go-to apple-pear with a cheddar crust, bourbon and orange pecan pie from a recipe online that a coworker’s wife sent to me, and a triple-layer pumpkin-chocolate pie which I hoped would be my showstopper if everything went as planned. The last one especially was a bit of a concern because I hadn’t made it before and it required me to learn how to use a double boiler (which Colin actually taught me in about five minutes this afternoon) but it sounded so damn good that I decided I had to give it a try. If it didn’t work, the book had a simpler recipe for a maple pumpkin pie that sounded delicious. But considering that this was for a friend’s wedding, I wanted to take a risk on something incredible. However, I couldn’t take that risk the day before the wedding. So, I decided to spend the weekend baking each of the three pies to make sure that everything goes smoothly.

And, to my very great surprise, it has gone pretty smoothly. (Aside from the fact that it’s been a little stressful and required a lot of careful timing and Ashley_Pie_4planning to get everything right.) I made the crusts on Saturday afternoon. Because they have to be refrigerated for at least an hour before being rolled into the pans, I took a small break and then began preparing the apple-pear pie with the cheddar crust. I chose to start with this pie because I was already comfortable making it, but also because it was the medium pie in terms of difficulty and time commitment. Colin helped peel and chop apples and pears, which is really the most time-consuming aspect of making the pie (besides, possibly, making the crust). I finished that pie Saturday evening, and woke up a little early on Sunday (today) to knock out the bourbon and orange pecan. I had to learn how to grate an orange to get orange zest–super simple, once Colin showed me–but it was a really simple, quick pie to throw together, especially since the recipe called for store-bought crust and I’m now used to making my own crust.

This afternoon I finally took on the beast: the triple-layer pumpkin-chocolate pie. I learned to use a double boiler. And I realized that while the individual steps are pretty simple, each of the pies three layers requires its own baking process, on top of the fact that I also had to prebake the crust. That’s a lot of time spent opening and closing the oven and nervously juggling a pie into the oven for a person who’s terrified of the appliance. But as soon as I caught a whiff of the batter–pumpkin and whipped cream cheese and about a dozen other ingredients–I realized that I HAD to make this pie for the wedding. And that was before I even spooned in the melted chocolate from the double boiler. This pie isn’t even out of the oven and I’m in love with it. It’s autumn. It’s chocolate. It’s decadent. And I had to learn a new kitchen skill in order to make it, so it gets bonus points for being challenging.

There are a lot of things I like about pies, and a lot of things I like about making them. But I think my favorite thing is that it was a hobby that took me by surprise. In fact, it takes everyone who knows me by surprise. Ashley? The girl who bakes cookie dough in the microwave? Making pies? I can see the incredulity written on people’s faces, and I understand it. Hell, I feel a little bit of that incredulity myself. And that’s what I love most about making pies: the possibility of surprising myself, and others. Because if a girl who can’t cook somehow likes making pies, then what else could she be capable of?

As a final note, I shared a link to the Bourbon and Orange Pecan Pie recipe because it’s already available online. I did not post the two recipes from the book because I don’t feel they’re mine to post online. However, a friend asked me to share the recipes with her and I did so in a private message, so if you’re interested in one or both of the recipes let me know and I can email or message them to you privately!

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Comments

  1. I love this post and the only thing it’s missing is a photo of a finished pie! Colin? Ashley, I’ve never been able to figure out what pie birds are used for but I think you need a few.

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