Pie (Decorating) Anxiety

“I’m scared of pie,” the founder of the bakery where I work once admitted when I asked her why we didn’t make it. And legend has it that the second thing I said to my new employer when she took over said bakery, after “Hi, I’m Gretchen,” was, “Can we make pie now?”

So what I’m saying is–I’m not scared of pie. In fact, I’m cocky enough to have blogged about my “pie secrets.” But still surprises me how many people do feel the pastry fear. Then I  a couple of weeks ago, I decided to get fancy and DECORATE my pie for a community harvest potluck, and I took a walk in the shoes of pastry fear.

Here’s the thing. I’m not scared of pie because I started making it when I was about twelve. Add forty-five years of pie making, and…ten thousand hours? Probably not hyperbole in this case.

But decorating? Never. Closest I ever got was to fashion a few generic leaves, maybe some berries, or stars for July 4. Easy-peasy blackberry piesy.

I think these are Doughtree leaves, from the family, uh, Crustia.

I’m wise smart old enough to stay off Instagram, but nonetheless, images of gorgeous pies have made their way to my brain via Facebook, and friends who know me as a Pie Woman. So I finally got ambitious stupid curious. How hard could this decorating thing be?

But as soon as I rolled out that top crust, my stomach clenched with anxiety. Should I stop here and go watch a video? Should I be rolling this onto wax paper? Why did I decide to diverge from my happy, thoughtless pie path?

Leaves. Okay. I got this. But not without help. And since the visual arts are not my strength, I decided to look up images of maple and oak leaves and then copy them onto cardboard as templates.

Did I mention visual arts are NOT my thing?

So far so…well, let’s go with “okay.” But it needs a little something more. Braids! Who can’t do braids? At least I didn’t have to google images for that.

Rustic is good. Rustic is good. It’s a PIE. Rustic is good.

Better. But let’s add a few o’ those trademark generic leaves, eh?

Cautiously optimistic…

OK. This is as good as it’s gonna get. Let’s bake this puppy!

Blackberry-strawberry, in case you were wondering.

Lessons learned:

a) Do use templates. Just cut them a little smaller next time. Or buy cutters in cute shapes. (But I’m too cheap for that.)

b) Do use wax paper to avoid mushing your cutouts. Chill or freeze them before applying.

c) Chill, but don’t freeze your braid strands. (Ever tried braiding frozen dough?)

d) Stay humble. In baking, as in life, there is always something to fear…and learn from.

Will I keep decorating pies? Probably, though only on occasion. I’m a happy imperfectionist, and pie is, in my opinion, meant to look rustic, so I don’t NEED to decorate. But I think it’s good for me to brush up against that fear now and then. And the compliments are nice too.

Good Pie, Good Pie, Until We Eat Again

“Let me give you my card.” That’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say.

It’s not that I didn’t think of myself as a professional when I taught high school. It’s just…who needs a teacher’s card, for goodness’ sake?

“For all your Shakespearean quotation needs…”


And now that I work at Holly B’s Bakery (“Holly’s Buns Are Best”) I need one even less. Everyone who’s ever been to my island, and many who haven’t, knows Holly B’s.

But last fall I was invited by a friend to bake pies for her daughter’s wedding. Since I am a Pie Maven, and since pie is one of the few items Holly B’s does not bake, I happily said yes.

The wedding’s in August? Sure, no prob. What else could possibly be going on in August?

I worked with the bride to create a list of a dozen pies with assorted fillings and crusts. Then I pretty much forgot about the gig for the next several months. Until we received a wedding invitation for the son of a dear friend in Oregon, for August 23. At that point it occurred to me that I’d never written in the actual date of the pie-wedding.

Sure enough: August 23.

OK. We can do this.

Remember: pies aren’t cakes. Sure, you can make a wedding cake a day or two ahead…even weeks, if you freeze the layers. Pies? No way. Gotta be FRESH. At least my pies do. I had to be able to deliver them that morning, then somehow get myself onto a ferry early enough to drive the 6 1/2 hours to Eugene for the 3:00 ceremony.

The Mate, of course, wanted to drive down a day to two ahead like a civilized person. But after investigating various combinations of bus, train, and even plane rides to get me to Eugene, we finally concluded that the only way was to take the 6:25 boat together, then drive down together (otherwise we’d end up driving home separately as well).

Did I mention what a great guy The Mate is? He accepted the mission.

So I made my shopping lists and got my materials together. Then, just a week before Pie Wedding Day, I had this thought: maybe I should have a business card!

It’s not that I really want to start a new business venture, baking on commission. It’s just…well…if someone really liked my pies, and that someone wanted to order one, well…I do hate disappointing people. Right?

So. Cards. Let me remind y’all that I am not only a techno-wuss, but extremely…let’s see, what’s the opposite of gifted?…in the graphic arts arena.

Luckily I AM blessed with two valuable gifts: punnishness, and good friends.

The tag line for the card came easily to me. And the design came easily to my friend Susan. The proud result:

Gretchen's Good Pie2

Oh, and the pies? Yeah, I got this.

Fillings prepped--check.

Fillings prepped–check.


Blackberry lattice, Strawberry-Apricot, and...oh shoot, what's that other one?

Blackberry lattice, Strawberry-Apricot, and…oh shoot, what’s that other one?

Add a little lovin' from the oven...

Add a little lovin’ from the oven…

To conclude this non-story: all 12 pies were delivered safely in the baker’s hours of the wedding morning. The Mate and I made the ferry, and he did most of the driving so I could catch up the sleep I’d missed from baking late and rising early. He is still speaking to me. And we made the Oregon wedding with no problem, and much love.

...et voila! Pack those babies up!

…et voila! Pack those babies up!

And now–will I start practicing saying “Let me give you my card?” I’ll have to get back to you on that. I really have no ambitions to start a new business.

But if it happens–I’ll be ready.

So here’s a fun question for y’all to chew on: if you were ever to dream of having your own business, what would it be? What would your card say? If you already have one, what DOES your card say?

Life of Pie: Crusty Author Gives Flaky Secrets

Fill in the blank: “It’s as American as apple _________.”

Not cupcakes. Not tarts. Not even empanadas. PIE, damnit. As far as I’m concerned, pie is IT and always will be.

I’m a pie girl from way back. My family had an apple tree that bore gazillion apples every September. Not too great for eating, but nice and tart, perfect for–no, not tarts!! PIE. I made two pies every day for as long as those apples kept coming, one for our dinner and one for the freezer.

I got pretty good at pie.

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: people are afraid of pie crust. They tell me horror stories of bad pie-crust trips that scarred them for life and sent them running, thereafter, for the frozen-food section to buy nice, safe flaky ones made by a machine. Or they gave up completely and just bought the whole pie. (Or went gluten-free, but that’s another story.)

Or, like the World’s Nicest Boss, Holly B (of Holly B’s Bakery, where “Holly’s Buns Are Best”), they moved permanently to the land of pie surrogate: Crumble. Tart. Danish.

When I first started working for Holly three years ago, she told me, “I’m scared of pie.” This is a woman who can make croissants from scratch that dissolve into a million tiny buttery leaves on your tongue. If SHE’S scared of pie…well, dang. That must be one scary pastry.

I bugged her, off and on for three years, to let me make a pie sometime and sell it. Granted, until this year my status as Assistant Baker was not much of a bully pulpit. But once I started Head Baking, a couple of months ago, I became more of a pie bully.

Me: So, Holly, will you let me make a pie sometime?

Holly: Well, sure…

Me: How about tomorrow?

Holly: Well, we still have more than half a marionberry crumble to sell…Let’s use that up first, then maybe…

Finally last month she relented, probably just to shut me up. I was SO excited, I brought my own ingredients with me to work: the instant tapioca that I use for thickener (which the bakery doesn’t carry) and my own blackberries picked from the roadside, plus a couple of nectarines bought from a stand. I wanted my pie to make a statement.

Like most people, I prefer my stories with happy endings, so I’ll try to manufacture one for this anecdote. My pie sold out, while the marionberry crumble did not. People said nice things. And I got to see, for one brief shining moment, a “Gretchen’s Fresh Blackberry-Nectarine Pie” sign out on our bakery counter (in fact, the sign was Holly’s idea–told you she was the World’s Nicest Boss).

Too bad I didn’t take a picture, ’cause that sign hasn’t been back, not even in a different flavor. The problem? I didn’t bring my A game when I needed it most. Using the Cuisinart for the first time threw me off (I don’t own one, so I always make my crust by hand). I cut the butter too small, reducing FP (flakiness potential) by half. And, scared of overly gloppy pie slices when my masterpiece was cut, I overdid it on the instant tapioca. The result was a delicious-tasting blackberry-nectarine medley with the consistency of…let’s say slightly melted gummi bears.

Holly was not impressed. Of course, being the World’s Nicest Boss, all she said was, “Let’s work together to find a crust recipe we both like, shall we?” Nothing about the gummi bears. I made a personal vow to hit one out of the park on my next pie at-bat. But I didn’t get the chance. August passed into September, our bakery hours began to wane, and I began to resign myself to another year of pielessness…

…until last week, when Holly invited me to make an apple…tart.

Hey, fruit in a crust? Sounds like pie to me.

Not. Gonna. Mess. This. Up.

Not. Gonna. Mess. This. Up.

We used her recipe. I watched the Cuisinart like a hawk and shut it off when the butter chunks were still the size of almonds. Then I mixed the water in by hand like I do at home. And since we were using apples instead of berries–no tapioca to worry about, just a little flour & some spices.

The result:

It's called a Rustic Tart for a reason, OK?

It’s called a Rustic Tart for a reason, OK?

I like my stories with morals too, so here’s one: Perseverance pays. That “Rustic Apple Tart” was so ridiculously flaky and delicious, both Holly’s and my confidence soared. Yesterday she told me, “I want you to keep doing that.”

And you know what? I will. I’ll make Rustic Tarts every day if she wants. Only in my head, I’ll be calling them pies.

Since you’ve read so far, here’s your reward: Gretchen’s Three Secrets to Perfect Flaky Crust.
1. Use ALL BUTTER. Yes, Crisco makes flakes. But it also tastes like Crisco. And a butter crust is delicious even a few days later, while a Crisco crust just tastes like…soggy Crisco. Good ratio: 2 cups flour/ 8 oz. butter

2. Leave the butter in ALMOND-SIZED CHUNKS when you cut it into the flour.

3. Use ICE WATER to moisten your crust.

4. When moistening dough, DON’T SQUEEZE. Handle it as little as possible. It should be very tender. If it breaks, so what? It’s dough. Stick it back together with some water.

OK, I lied–that was Four Secrets. But yeah, I’m a little flaky.

If you must, weigh in with your own PIE SECRETS. But I probably won’t listen. On this topic, I’m a tad close-minded.