by Jennifer Mittler-Lee
I admit it, I have never enjoyed cooking. I tried to, I really did. Sure, there were a lot of things I liked about cooking, for instance, I loved to browse through cookbooks and make note of all the recipes I intended to try later. I also liked shopping for equipment. Dutch ovens, silicone baking mats, and blenders, I spent hours researching all the best brands. In my head, I planned elaborate dinner parties, where I brought out each perfectly timed course to the oohs and ahhs of my guests. One day I realized that it was the idea of cooking that I liked, not the actual process. Baking, though, that was another story. Should be the same thing, right? Nope. Baking produced yummy results, so delicious that I often couldn’t help myself from sneaking a taste, or two, or three before the finished product had a chance to go into the oven.
To my ears, it even sounded fancier. I was a baker, not a simple cook, thank you very much. Plus, there was the added benefit of sounding extra impressive when I informed someone that I baked it “from scratch.” Cooking, by its nature, always involved starting from scratch, I almost never heard that term when referring to it. But just take a trip down the baking aisle and what do I see? Rows and rows of boxed cake, pancake and muffin mixes, all promising to be ready “in minutes”. Grilling hamburgers “from scratch” was totally acceptable but combining a little flour and sugar to bake a cake was an astonishing feat. And the box mixes still required beating in an egg or two and then I still had to bake the thing so I always figured why not make it taste better and just measure the dry ingredients out myself.
There was only one small problem, I wasn’t very good at baking. I actually had success while cooking. Basically, find a recipe and follow it, but there was always ample wiggle room. Say I didn’t have any chicken stock for a soup. Vegetable stock could be substituted with no problem. No chives? Green onions were practically the same! However, when baking, you couldn’t even think about doing the same. No cake flour? Using all-purpose flour would result in a dry, inedible mass. No brown sugar? Don’t even attempt to use white sugar unless you wanted a completely different flavor profile. And don’t even get me started on the subtle nuances of baking powder versus baking soda. I tripled checked which one the recipe called for every single time and still made mistakes. Here’s a tip, if you want cookies that taste like aluminum, use baking powder when it calls for soda. Better yet, use a tablespoon when it asks for a teaspoon.
Even when I had a fool-proof recipe and all the ingredients that it called for, I could never seem to get the final step right. There was always a wide range of bake times and they never seemed to be correct for my oven. Oh sure, I know you are supposed to check your oven temperature against an independent thermometer, but who wants to clean that grimy little guy? And they always seemed to get pushed to the back of the oven and forgotten about. No, I didn’t need one of those simple things, I was too busy saving money for the latest and greatest Kitchen-Aid blender. So I added two to five minutes to every recipe and then the guessing game began. Were these golden brown or more light yellow-brown? Would they cook more after I took them out or was this the final result? Why was the knife that I stuck in the middle of the cake still dirty but if I tried it a centimeter to the left, it was clean? Was it done? Was it burnt? Was it raw? So many questions I never had while cooking. I knew when the meat was done, it wasn’t pink, or when the spinach was blanched, I had a quarter of the original amount left. With baking, I hoped and prayed for a miracle each time. But still, I loved it and continued to call myself a baker, attempting more and more complicated recipes. And they usually turned out just fine, at least I got no complaints from family and friends. That was another fun thing about baking, it was social. Everyone loves being given a plate of homemade cookies. It’s just so unexpected and sweet. It’s not quite as easy trying to share your leftover pot roast. Um, how long has that been sitting out? No thank you.
So over the years, I got decently good at cookies and cakes. I threw in the occasional pudding or fudge every now and then, but there was always one thing I was dying to make. The one dessert I always ordered whenever it appeared on restaurant menus. The one dessert to rule them all, pie. I didn’t care what kind of pie, fruit, custard, or cream, I loved them all. And they were cute to look at too with all the fancy edging and latticework. They just screamed Americana and summertime. But I always thought they were out of my league. I could barely handle sugar cookies and vanilla cake, how could I even dream of attempting a homemade flaky crust? And store-bought pre-made crusts were out of the question. I couldn’t take credit for a pie made with that, it was too easy. Just roll it out and plunk in some fruit? Where was the challenge, where was the glory? And they never seemed to taste the same, or maybe it was just the baking snob in me. So I put off making pies, but I never forgot about them.
Until one fateful day, yes it was that cliche, I was rooting around my mom’s old stack of cookbooks and found the Elsah Landing Restaurant Cookbook. I hadn’t thought about that restaurant in ages, I had only gone a few times as a child and they had been out of business since the 90s, but for some reason, I associated pie with their name. I flipped to the dessert section and there they were! Page after page of pie recipes! From ordinary pecan pie to mysterious Peck’s Bavarian Cream pie, they called to me, daring me to bake them. But what about the deal breaker, how difficult would the crust be? I skimmed the recipe for their 2 crust pie pastry and saw them, the words that inspired me to at least try. I quote their sage advice, “ good pastry dough breaks easily. If it breaks when you transfer it to the pie pan, squish it back together.” They actually used the word “squish.” How could I fail if I could “squish?”
I had no confidence at all as I began to bring the ingredients together but how badly could I screw up that which was basically flour (it didn't specify what kind! I could use whatever I wanted!) salt, water, and Crisco. Yes, this final ingredient gave me pause. Shortening had become a bad word these days, it was practically synonymous with clogged arteries. But these ladies said I could use it! I had permission to make an unhealthy dessert. I justified it with the same excuse as always, I don’t eat this a lot and when I do, I want it to taste good. In other words, I want the calories to be worth it. So I used the Crisco. I didn’t have a pastry blender but a large fork seemed to be working just fine. Now here was a dilemma, I was supposed to blend until the mixture formed particles slightly larger than grains of rice. This was very vague to me and my hands were really getting tired so I quit when the particles more closely resembled the size of small pebbles. Now came the fun part, I got to scrape the whole mess out onto my countertop and roll it out. I actually had a rolling pin, didn’t everyone? Of course, I had never used it but it just seemed right to have one in my kitchen. Well, today was the day! I generously floured it and my countertop and started to roll out the dough. I realized I wasn’t even thinking about the mess I would have to clean up later, I was having fun! This was real baking! Oops, there went a tear in the middle. Squish it back together! Oops, one side was starting to stretch longer. Tear off the offending part and squish it back into the center! Eventually, I had a decently thin, marginally circular crust laying flat on my countertop. I brought over the pan. Now, how to make this transfer? This was going to be hard. I thought of the different approaches I could use but decided to just go for it. As expected, it stuck to the countertop, but I scraped it off and just let the holes form. I could squish it back together when I had it in the pan. And suddenly, just like that, it was in. Of course, it wasn’t pretty, it was lopsided and had more crust on the right side than the left, and naturally, it had a lot of holes, but I squished and tore and pressed and smoothed until I had it in decent shape once more. I was just going to cover it with filling anyway. Into the oven it went and I surveyed my flour-covered kitchen and felt a deep sense of satisfaction.
I still remember that first bite. It was absolute heaven. Now a confession, when I said I loved pie, I really meant the pie filling. I was a crust-leaver. Pizza, bread, you name it, I didn’t like crust. It was a waste of stomach space, especially when it came to pie. What I wanted to eat was the fruit or the custard, so imagine my surprise when I found myself eating the crust and enjoying it as much as the filling. It was everything that Elsah had promised, light, flaky, and buttery and I had done it on my first attempt! It had been ugly, I hadn’t really followed the directions, I used unspecified flour and all the wrong equipment, and it still worked. I was floored. And best of all was that I had an extra crust! The recipe yielded two and I baked an open-faced pie. I could freeze this and use it in a few weeks. And when I did just this, the frozen pie crust tasted every bit as good. It was actually better.
I have since made many of Elsah’s pies, but not you Peck’s Bavarian, you are still on my list, and I did buy that pastry blender, I find it lessens the strain on my wrists. I eventually figured out the best way to transfer crust is to gently roll it, place that in the pan off to one side, and then just unroll it to the other side. But the one thing my pies all have in common is amazing crust. It just doesn’t fail. In this time of social isolation, I can understand why people have turned to cooking and baking. There is a comfort to be had in it. A pride that you made something, even if it isn't from scratch, the point is that you made it with your own two hands and yes, love. And that feels good. Sure it’s amazing to eat delicious food and share it with friends and loved ones. It's gratifying to hear their words of praise and see them finish a dish you worked so hard on. But the real satisfaction is in the fact that you took the time out to mix a few ingredients and have it transform into something magical. So I welcome all the new bakers to try something scary. Try making pie crust or baking bread, although yeast is hard to come by these days. It’s like anything in life, you can’t fail if you don’t try but you can’t succeed either.
For the curious I will include the pie crust recipe:
The Elsah Landing Restaurant Pastry for 2 Crust Pie.
2 cups flour (yes they really just say flour)
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup Crisco (just use it)
5 to 7 tablespoons ice water
Spoon flour lightly into a cup. Level off. Sift flour and salt together in bowl. Cut in Crisco with pastry blender until mixture forms particles slightly largert than grains of rice. Sprinkle with ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Toss gently with fork until all particles are uniformly moistened and will barely stick together. Shape mixture into a ball. Divide. roll out each 1/2 on lightly floured pastry cloth.
Makes 1 (9-inch) double crust.