My pie odyssey began last Wednesday at a pie dough class taught in the basement of the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. I had a hard time dragging my heavy heart the few blocks from my apartment — it was Nov. 9 after all.
I can’t bake. I can’t even cook. I really like microwaving frozen meatballs and eating cereal. I love takeout and those pink frosted cookies from Meijer. But a week ago I made an oath to a beautiful Senior Arts Editor that I would bake a pie for the B-side.
That’s how I found myself squishing a chunk of butter in my bare hands in the basement of the library on the worst day of the year. And I am so glad I did.
Before I dive into the details of flaky crust and cheesy pie toppings, I want to express my gratitude for the other people who attended the event with me. Nothing could have reaffirmed my beliefs about the innate goodness of people more than baking pie dough in a basement with 12 strangers — most of whom were women and not native English speakers.
The woman sitting across from me asked me what I do for Thanksgiving. She was new to the class, and she was trying to master an apple pie before the holiday. She scrolled through photos on her iPhone to show me pies — pies with sunken crusts, pies that were burnt and pies that looked beautiful but were (she assured me) not good at all. It felt good to know that in the midst of so much division, strangers still want to show you pictures of food on their phones. People still want to connect with each other.
“I started when I was about six at my grandma’s knee making chocolate chip cookies,” said Keegan Rodgers, head baker and bakery manager at the People’s Food Co-op, as well as the class’s teacher. “That started my love.”
Rodgers has been teaching baking classes through the co-op for five years. He began last week’s class by going over the dissimilarities between various types of dough.
“These are the greatest baking instruments you’ll ever need,” he said, lifting two butter-covered hands into the air.
We mushed the blocks of butter and began to mix them into the flour. Rodgers teaches a technique from this mixing called frisage.
“Fan money with your fingers,” he instructs us. The process involves coming up from under and pressing the butter through the flour and salt until the mixture is the consistency of cornmeal. The process of encapsulating the flour in the butter is what creates flakes. It’s also a reason to use additional flour sparingly when rolling out the crust. Flour that does not get encapsulated in butter is what makes the dough dry or hard.
The next step is to add the water. Rodgers suggests adding a tiny bit of vinegar to the water before adding the liquid to the dough, then just dumping it in. None of the sprinkle and mix method that many food writers promote.
And then you just mush around the dough, folding it in on itself over and over, until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers. That’s when you know it’s done — when your hands aren’t covered in dough any more.
And that’s it. The first half of my journey was complete without any injury or tragedy. Maybe baking pies can be easy — a sentiment Rodger agreed with. For students trying to bake in smaller kitchens, he recommends sticking with the Thanksgiving staple.
“Pies really are the way to go,” he said. “They’re so versatile.” His personal favorite is a lemon meringue, but more traditional fruit pies are often easier for amateur bakers (like myself).
Now I had the dough, but I didn’t know what to fill it with. So, I called the best chef I know — my dad. He passed on a recipe for an apple pie, an American classic.
I knew the recipe he sent would make a very good, very normal apple pie. But, I tried something a little different for my pie. The first adaption was pretty tame — my dad likes to use half apples and half pears when he is making his pies. The risk level for this culinary swap was low. Apples and pears are basically the same thing, right?
The second change was a little more dramatic. My grandfather used to eat his apple pie with a big slice of cheddar cheese. When my dad passed that mental image down to me during our phone call, I was disgusted. Dairy in general is something I don’t like to think about too much — people who can drink plain milk are the worst kind of mythical creature. But I tried it. What is Thanksgiving all about if not familial oddities?
The recipe my dad passed along included instructions for making a cheese topping for the pie, so I decided to try that. I had to trek across town to get a cheese grater. I was originally going to use my pre-shredded Mexican-blend cheese mix from Trader Joe’s, but a quick Google search told me that would be “completely gross.”
When I sat down to actually make the pie, I realized I didn’t have a pie tin. I almost had a pie tin, but I accidentally broke the ceramic one I was going to buy in the checkout line at Meijer and was too embarrassed to go back for another one. Alas, I went to CVS and found a cake pan that seemed sufficient.
Back home, I peeled and cut my apples and pears. I mixed my sugar and spices and coated the sliced fruit, but when I got out my dough I realized — yet again — how grossly unprepared I was for this adventure. I didn’t have a rolling pin. So I used a combination of a wooden spoon, a potato and my hands to roll/smash the dough into sort of a circle.
Instead of covering my pie with a second crust, I baked it open like a tart (but, very different from a tart!) at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Then I grated my sharp cheddar over the top. The recipe told me then to put the pie in a broiler. “What is a broiler?” you might ask. I’m still not sure, but it sounds like a mixture of baker and boiler. My oven (miraculously) has a broil feature so I set out to use that. I left my cheese-coated pie in the oven on broil for about five minutes. When I took it out, it looked — and smelled — surprisingly delicious.
Then I went to cut myself a piece. I wanted so badly for my pie to be a success. It looked beautiful, and it smelled beautiful. I sunk the knife in expecting to hit the crisp lower crust but I got nothing. Nothing. The pie was liquid goo all the way through. I still dolloped a mound of apple/pear mush with cheese onto my plate. It was good, it was really good, but it wasn’t a pie. The dough on the bottom hadn’t hardened like I had expected it to; it had absorbed the moisture of the apples and pears and turned into mush.
I was so close. I had the perfect dough and a great recipe. I was going to make the kind of pie my dad would make, the kind of pie my grandfather would’ve eaten. But somewhere between my ancient oven, hand-rolled dough, cake pan and “broiled” cheese topper, something had gone horribly wrong.
Since eating the sad (but delicious) lumps of cheesy, sugary fruit with my roommate, I’ve called my dad. He assured me that anyone with a better kitchen and real baking tools could have tremendous success. So, never fear, reader! A cheese-covered pie and a slice of my weirdo family is within reach.
· 5 cups all-purpose flour
· 1/2 tablespoon sea salt
· 1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
· 1 cup cold water
· 1 tablespoon vinegar (mixed into water)
Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Work butter between hands until it is malleable but not melted. Mix the butter into the flour using the frisage technique mentioned earlier. Once the mix is the consistency of cornmeal, add the water and vinegar mixture. Knead dough until it no longer sticks to your hands or your work surface. Refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for as long as food products can usually be frozen — I do not know how long that is.
· 5-6 cups apples, peeled, cored and cut very thin (I used half apples and half pears)
· 1/2 cup white or brown sugar (tart apples like Granny Smith might need 2/3 cup; I used Honeycrisps with 1/2 cup brown sugar)
· 1/8 teaspoon salt
· 1 tablespoon cornstarch
· 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
· 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
· 1 1/2 tablespoon butter
· 1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine sugar, salt, cornstarch, cinnamon and nutmeg. Sift over the apples and pears. Place them in layers in the crust. Dot with butter. Add vanilla on top.
For no cheese: Cover the pie with the second crust and prick the center. Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees, bake for another 45-60 minutes.
For cheese: Bake pie for 20 minutes at 450 degrees without a top crust. Take pie out and grate cheese — sharp cheddar works well — over the top. Broil until cheese is melted. As the pie cools, the cheese will harden slightly.