Miss American Pie

How one cook embraced the glory of America’s iconic dessert

By Lesley Porcelli

Published on November 6, 2013

The world went quiet, just for a moment, when I pulled my salted caramel apple pie out of the oven last Thanksgiving. Those mingling aromas of butter, sugar, and fruit that had scented the house for the past 45 minutes suddenly intensified; the topography of the undulating crust and bubbling, jammy inlets came into focus like a map of a wonderful new place I would get to visit in a few hours, when everything had cooled just enough. But I couldn't wait and was all alone in the kitchen anyway. I broke off a piece of the bronzed crust, its jagged edge tinged with a caramelized bit of apple, and popped it into my mouth. It was piping hot, the apple tangy, the crust crisp, flaky perfection. Only when I emerged from my reverie did I register that plates were clinking and people talking in the next room.

We didn't always have it so good, pie and I. Like many great love affairs, our relationship started off on the wrong foot. Growing up, I preferred Oreos and my mom's fresh-baked devil's food cake to the shocking-neon pies I encountered at the supermarket, each with canned fruit—bright orange peach, stoplight red cherry—floating in a terrifying, nearly solid gel.

I started coming around when, after college, I took a position as an editorial assistant at a glossy women's lifestyle magazine. There, pies with fruit tumbling out of hand-cut crusts emerged from the test kitchen almost daily. Each beckoned with dizzying, irresistible aromas and tasted divine.

A few months after I started that job, Thanksgiving rolled around, and inspired, I attempted to make an apple pie from scratch, my first ever. I had the recipe from the magazine, a classic two-crusted apple pie spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg—perfect for the holiday table. Alas, though I was starting to love pie, it quickly became evident that it didn't yet return my affections. I tried to roll a perfect disk shape, but my dough crumbled and cracked. The finished pie looked and smelled convincing enough, but the illusion dissolved in one bite—it was so grainy that occasionally I heard crunching-on-sand noises around the table. Adding insult was all the praise that the store-bought pumpkin pie received. In what kind of twisted world, I thought, does something mass-produced actually taste better than something from scratch?

So I turned to baking books, and the more I learned about pie, the more it intimidated me. Pie recipes, I noticed, began with long blocks of text that read as if crust were some temperamental mezzo-soprano that easily took offense. Television cooking segments about pie were even worse, the tone on the set as sober as the evening news.

"Everything has to be ice-cold," the baker would begin; the flour, the salt—even the countertop should go in the freezer if possible, to keep the dough from melting and going greasy. Touching the dough was out of the question, the warmth of your hands apparently enough to ruin everything!—so get out your food processor, but be careful, because it might chop the butter too finely and ruin everything! Don't add too much water, because the dough will be tough, but don't add too little, because it won't come together. Then again, if you're new at this, you probably won't know what you're doing, so you might as well just resign yourself to subpar crust and err on the side of too much. And whatever you do, don't overwork the dough! Just mix the stuff until it comes together, then stop—don't even look at it again, lest you pay the price with overdeveloped glutens and a crust tough enough to chip teeth. Perfect the act of plastic wrapping the dough ball and transferring it to the fridge without actually handling it.

Forget that! I thought.

Pie and I lost touch until years later in a required class on pastry at culinary school. Our bald, menacing chef-instructor, who somehow managed to consistently turn out airy, perfect pie crusts, lumbered over as I was wrestling another noncompliant ball of dough.

“You didn't work it enough,” he said after one look.

What? "Work" pie dough? As in, completely molest and manhandle it? Before I could open my mouth to question him, he illustrated in the affirmative, grabbing my dough in his huge fingers and folding it into submission, transforming it from a patchy, powdery pile into a smooth, butter-flecked disk that held its shape. The key, he explained, was to develop enough glutens to allow the dough to hold together while keeping some lumps of butter intact. These would melt while baking, leaving behind air pockets—essential for a crust with layers of flakiness. The customary rest in the fridge that all pie recipes call for would be enough to relax the glutens that did form, preventing toughness. He was right; my finished pie, an Alsatian bacon and egg tart, could have won a prize, the smoky bacon and silky slices of egg complemented by—finally!—the most buttery and flaky pastry imaginable.

Brown Butter Walnut Pie with Sour Whipped Cream
Brown Butter Walnut Pie with Sour Whipped Cream

Browned butter accentuates the flavor of earthy walnuts and a sour cream topping offsets the richness of the filling for a balanced, delectable dessert.

From that day forth, I was hooked. On the one hand, I now knew what I was doing, but on the other, pie still felt like a delicious challenge. Pie teaches you a new lesson every time—like how the apples you love might not be the best choice for pie (there's some wisdom to baking with stodgy Golden Delicious, which hold a firm texture in the heat of the oven rather than watering out as good eating apples do), and how there is a way to get a gooey nut pie without a soggy bottom crust. Just give the crust a fighting chance by pre-baking, and voilà!

Reader, I turned into a bona fide pie baker, able to whip up crusts in the most makeshift of kitchens with nothing more than flour, butter, salt, and my bare hands. I became one of those annoying people who lingers at farm stands, fondling the fruit, deciding on a whim which one to tuck into a pie later. I could pair apple with cranberry for tartness, or pear for mellowness…or why not put all three together?

I now indulge my fantasies of perfect summer days with berry pies consumed on sweltering evenings, and satisfy my husband's cravings for fall pies that mix fruit and spice with homey nostalgia. And I can't tell you how smug and superior I feel while weaving a lattice crust, as if I had been doing it all my life. Every time I trot out one of these babies, I am praised as if I've just descended from the sky with flowing robes and a tongue of fire on my head.

Which brings me back to Thanksgiving. It's now my holiday. I remain faithful to that caramel apple pie, but I flirt with a different pumpkin pie each year, changing up the crust, tinkering with the spices. This year I'm thinking a crisp maple brûlée layer on top. I have had plenty of game-day disasters, including a turkey that was overcooked on one side and still thawing on the other. But when I bring out my pies to wind down the meal, they're all anyone remembers. Every good love story, after all, should have a happy ending.

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