"Exceptionally entertaining and wonderfully original" (Chicago Tribune), Beth Kendrick delivers a funny story about family, self- discovery, and the pursuit of the perfect pie crust.
Suburban soccer mom Amy has always wanted to stand out from the crowd. Former child prodigy Linnie just wants to fit in. The two sisters have been estranged for years, but thanks to a series of personal crises and their wily grandmother, they've teamed up to enter a national bake-off in the hopes of winning some serious cash. Armed with the top-secret recipe for Grammy's apple pie, they should be unstoppable. Sure, neither one of them has ever baked anything more complicated than brownie mix, but it's just pie-how hard could it be?
“Pie dough can smell fear.”
– The Art & Soul of Baking by Sur La Table and Cindy Mushet
The class title should have been my first clue that I was in over my head: Intensive Two-Day Baking Workshop. Intensive. You know, like for people who are intense. And can bake. I qualified as neither of these, but I was a novelist on a deadline, and I needed to learn how to make pie from scratch ASAP for a book about two culinarily-challenged sisters who enter a high-profile national bake-off in hopes of achieving riches and glory.
So I signed myself up and paid the enrollment fee. My reasoning went something like this: it’s just pie! Kindly grandmothers all over the Western world make it every day! How hard could this really be? Plus, the workshop was hosted by swanky cookware emporium Sur La Table, where I felt certain I would not have to wash my own dishes.
On the appointed Saturday afternoon, I arrived a few minutes late with a dose of liquid Tylenol spilled on my jeans courtesy of the cranky, congested toddler I’d left at home with my husband. After donning my apron and nametag, I started to mingle with the other students. I felt my first twinge of misgiving when I noticed that many of my fellow attendees seemed to know each other already, due to serial enrollment in these workshops. People were discussing topics such as “knife techniques” and “flavor profiles.”
My second twinge of misgiving came when our instructor, Judy, took the floor and asked us to introduce ourselves one at a time, describing our previous culinary experience and explaining what we were hoping to get out of this particular workshop. Here is a sampling of the typical responses:
“I’m Heather, and I enjoy entertaining. Lately, I’ve started hosting dinner parties where I cook everything from scratch and my guests offer to bring desserts, then show up with cakes they bought at the grocery store. [Pause for collective gasps of horror.] I’m here to master pastry techniques so that my desserts are as good as the rest of the meal.”
“I’m Tara, and I’m a corporate litigator who works 15 hours days. I used to spend my weekends mountain biking and training for triathlons, but after I shattered my tibia, my doctors said I had to find a new hobby, so I’ve shifted my focus to cooking.”
“I’m Beth, and I think I’m in the wrong class.” I mumbled a bit about my novel-in-progress, and Judy looked delighted.
“That’s wonderful. We’ll have you baking with the best in no time! ” Judy briefed us on her own culinary biography, including a decade’s worth of instruction and several state fair pie wins. Were this an SAT analogy question, I would say that Judy is to pie as Twilight fanatics are to Edward Cullen. The woman knows everything. She can tell you which pastry techniques originated in Italy and which originated in France. She can tell you all about the elasticity of protein structures in gluten and the alcohol/carbon dioxide output of yeast. She can tell you why sugar qualifies as a liquid ingredient, even though it’s not liquid. Ready or not, I was about to attempt a whole new level of food preparation: sophisticated, meticulous, and scientifically rigorous.
The students broke up into small groups of 2-3, each subset focusing on a different project: palmiers, lemon tarts, brioche, genoise cake, or apple pie. I assigned myself to the pie group and tried to keep a low profile. Judy made the rounds, overseeing our progress and dispensing expert advice. Truly, she couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. When she checked in with the pie posse, she pulled me aside, gave me her card, and told me to email her with any questions I had later in the writing process. She nodded with sympathy and understanding as I explained that I was here purely for research purposes, that I could barely cobble together Rice Krispies treats and I was okay with that.
“I’ll just peel apples and watch everyone else,” I said.
But no. Judy was not going to let me coast by on flimsy excuses and partial credit. I had signed up for a baking class, and by God, she was going to make me learn to bake.
“Baking is a Zen sport,” she explained as she watched us pour ingredients into the food processor. “You need confidence and patience. If you rush, you’ll get into trouble. But once you find the flow…” She trailed off as she noticed the contents of my Cuisinart. “Oh, dear. What happened over here?”
I took off the clear plastic lid and joined her in frowning down at the crumbled mess. “Well, after I added the water, the dough seemed a little too clumpy, so I added a few more teaspoons of flour.”
Judy shook her head. “Once you start adding wet ingredients, there’s no such thing as adding more flour. Wet ingredients are the point of no return for pie dough.”
That friendly but firm smile returned. “I believe your written instructions say as much.”
I glanced down at the recipe on my clipboard, skimming the long paragraphs of text. “Hmm. Yeah, I guess you’re right. See? This is why I should be relegated to apple peeling duty. Pie crust is for black belt Zen masters.”
“Indeed it is.” Judy tapped my clipboard with one dainty, manicured finger. “Did you read the instructions all the way through before you started?”
She lowered her glasses and made eye contact. “Do you remember what our target range is for the temperature of the chilled butter?”
I started squirming. “Uh…”
“Do you remember how many times you’re supposed to pulse the food processor after you add the butter to the flour mixture?”
“Five?” I ventured. “Eight?”
Her smile brightened. “You’re not getting out of here until you produce a pie crust worthy of the name.”
Every class has a slow student, and I was it: the problem child of Sur La Table. And it was killing me, because I am typically Little Miss Overachiever. My family makes fun of me for my fussy, perfectionist ways. But because I had signed up for the workshop in the name of research, I had somehow adopted the attitude that it was okay to opt out, to scribble away in my notebook without actually having to try (and possibly fail at) the techniques Judy was trying to teach us. I had convinced myself that it wouldn’t matter if my pie crust tasted like cardstock, because I wasn’t really a baker—I was a writer. But you cannot bullshit your way through baking. The finished product is either delicious or it’s not, and watching Judy at work had inspired me. I really, really wanted my pie to be great. I wanted to put grocery store baked goods to shame.
Time to stop researching and get my hands dirty. Or at least lightly dusted with flour.
On the second day of the workshop, I brought my A game and a much better attitude. I showed up half an hour early and studied the recipe like I was prepping for the bar exam, determined to redeem myself and whip out the single best pie crust Judy had ever tasted.
And I tried. God knows I tried. But here’s the thing: there is nothing grandmotherly about pie crust. Pie crust is unpredictable, contrary, and extremely volatile, the Kanye West of the pastry world. And while mixing up the dough may be challenging, rolling the dough out properly requires nerves of steel, ninja-like dexterity, and a doctoral degree in physics. You’ve got to maintain total control of temperature and consistency, all the while trying to remember to start with your rolling pin in the middle of the dough disc and not roll over the edges, thus maintaining a uniform thickness and avoiding the dreaded crust taper.
Judy demonstrated proper rolling technique. In three minutes, she had a perfect, symmetrical circle so thin you could read newsprint through it yet so pliable she could fold it up like origami to transfer it from countertop to pie plate. “Look, everyone.” She pointed out the feathery streaks in the dough. “These are striations of butter, and they’re what make the crust flaky. If you prepped your dough right, you should see lots of those.”
I set to work with my rolling pin, but my dough was devoid of butter striations. Also, it proved quite geometrically challenged and refused to conform to a circular shape. I had to settle for a lopsided isosceles triangle, which started to tear when I tried to transfer it to the pie plate. A few feet away, I could hear Tara the corporate litigator/triathlon champion start to curse in frustration as she struggled to interweave the long strips of the crust’s lattice top.
Meanwhile, my husband was calling me repeatedly to inform me that our two-year-old was projectile vomiting like something out of a Discovery Health Channel special.
“Well, you’ll just have to man up and deal with it!” I snapped into the phone as a droplet of sweat trickled down my forehead. “I’m mid-roll-out here, and if this dough gets any warmer, I’m screwed. This is crunch time!” I hung up and high-fived Tara as we started to brush on the egg yolk glaze.
I managed to get the pie assembled and into the oven before I succumbed to mommy guilt and ducked out of class. But that evening, I called up Laura, one of my classmates, and asked, “So how did my pie turn out? If we were being graded, would I get an A? Was there a fistfight over who got the last slice?”
Laura paused. “Well. Judy said it looked good, and then she tasted it.”
“And?” I prompted.
“And then she said, ‘There are two types of pie, and we were trying to make the other kind.’”
At least I didn’t have to wash the dishes.
I may not have mastered that particular pie crust, but Judy’s unrelenting confidence in me rubbed off. I can read, I can measure and weigh, and I’ve been naturally blessed with a Type-A, control freak personality. Ergo, I can bake. I just need to practice. A lot.
My pantry is currently stocked with three distinct types of flour (all purpose flour, bread flour, and cake flour), three types of yeast (active, rapid-rise, and instant) and two kinds of baking cocoa (Dutch process and natural). In November, I volunteered to host my family’s Thanksgiving dinner for the very first time and I made a pumpkin pie from scratch. As in, I actually bought a baking pumpkin, cut it in half (“bludgeoned” is probably a more accurate term), roasted the pieces in the oven, scooped out the innards, and made the puree for the pie with an immersion blender. Plus, I whipped up potato dinner rolls and a creamy butternut squash puree (this also involved some gourd bludgeoning). No way would I have attempted that pre-Judy. I’ve learned all about the many uses of double boilers, the dip-and-sweep method of dry goods measurement, and the importance of keeping a food thermometer on hand when you work with yeast.
A few days after Thanksgiving, my husband asked what I might want for Christmas this year.
“Jewelry?” he asked. “If it’s jewelry, please take pity on me and email me a link to what you have in mind.”
“Jewelry?” I scoffed. “Pfft, who needs diamonds and pearls? I want a food processor. A big one, with a pulse button and a dough blade.”
My husband narrowed his eyes. “Is this a trap?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I thought you said the rule was that I was never to buy you gifts that could be plugged in.”
I waved this away. “That’s before I discovered my undying love of KitchenAid appliances. And maybe a digital dry goods scale. Oh, and you know, Alton Brown just came out with a new cookbook.”
My husband’s expression progressed from suspicion to shock. “Who are you?”
And I realized that somewhere along the way, I had changed irrevocably. These days, I wouldn’t be caught dead making brownies from a box—why would I, when I can use melted chocolate, butter, sugar and a whisk to create little cubes of pure fudgy bliss? I’ve found the flow and the fun in rolling out pie crust. I stopped being afraid of failure and even innovated some new twists on traditional apple pie recipes to include in my novel, The Bake-Off.
“It’s happened,” I whispered. “I’m one of them.”
And I can say with total certainty that if this workshop can make a baker out of me, it could prepare anyone else to sweep an entire season of Top Chef. Judy, you rock. Sur La Table, if you ever need a spokesperson, you know who to call. You can pay me in pastry.
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