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.

Promotion? Careful What You Wish For…

I’m a head baker now.

No, this does not mean I bake heads. (Although if you prepped ’em for me just right, I would pop ’em in my oven & make sure the eyelids came out nice & crispy.)

Need I say more?

Need I say more?

Here’s what the Assistant Baker does at Holly B’s Bakery (where “Holly’s Buns Are Best”):

–takes dough made during the previous shift and fills, rolls, and/or twists it into cinnamon rolls, butterhorns, brioches & rugelach

–scoops or chops and presses cookie dough into flat rounds

–makes macaroons and chocolate chip cookies from scratch (these doughs don’t keep as well, plus our fridge isn’t that big)

–assembles & cuts out scones & biscuits with pre-made dry mixes

–makes brownies & bars….

…and puts all of the above on racks for the Head Baker to decide when to bake.

"You WILL be the most delicious croissants ever. Resistance is futile."

“You WILL be the most delicious croissants ever. Resistance is futile.”

Here’s what the Head Baker does:

–makes bread doughs & sets them up to rise

–rolls out, fills & assembles danish and about a zillion different kinds of croissants, working FAST so the cold dough doesn’t get sticky and refuse to roll

–shapes, rises and bakes all bread loaves, including our filled baguettes (can you say carmelized onion and brie? Mais oui!)

–bakes everything the Assistant Baker puts on the racks, keeping in mind a) how long each item might need to rise; b) how long each item might use up oven space; c) how hot said oven needs to be for said item; and d) when each item is needed up front.

Here’s what an Assistant Baker Worries About:

Am I making this right?

Here’s what a Head Baker Worries About:

Am I making this right? Am I rising anything so long it flattens? Are my ovens hot enough or too hot? Am I burning anything, or ¬†underbaking it so it falls apart when de-panned? Am I missing any special orders that need to be picked up by, God help us all, 7 am? Am I noticing whether we’re running out of any ingredients that the next shift will need? Am I paying attention to my Assistant Baker’s work in case, God help us all, she’s as much a rookie as I am?

You get the idea.

Friends from my former life, who knew I walked away from 20 years of teaching high school into a blessedly, no, miraculously stress-free life of writing and assistant baking, are now a little baffled. “You want more stress in your life…why, exactly?”

Here’s all I can tell them, all I can tell myself: After three years on the JV, I wanted to join the Varsity.

Yep, it’s more stressful. I’m already starting to dream about those little oven timers going off like panicked baby ducks. (For the record, I still dream about trying to teach out-of-control classrooms too; guess that stays with a teacher for life!)

But it is WORTH it. If I was proud of my work before, now, as a HEAD BAKER, when I see those racks of bread that I BROUGHT INTO THIS WORLD FROM RAW INGREDIENTS AND DID NOT BURN, I want to grab the nearest customer and yell, “Hey! Aren’t they gorgeous? I MADE those! Eat them! Bow down to me!”

Of course, it’s only been a week. I’ll get back to you on the stress thing.

How about you? Ever felt like you’ve bitten off more than you could chew, workwise? Ever decided it was worth it anyway? Tell me your story. You know I’ll relate.