Mar 14, 2013

Pies Will Cure Nothing

In honor of Pi Day, 3.14, I wanted to tell you a story. It’s a story about pie and it’s probably a bit too personal, but heck, it’s Pi Day. And pies… are personal.

I like pie. Blueberry pie, Apple pie, the kind doesn’t matter, I just like that I can make them. During certain stretches of my life, in fact, it felt like pies were my sole badges of self-competency. Things may be going wrong, but I… ha ha… I can make a pie. The fact that during these darker times, I could lumber into the kitchen and turn puffs of flour and water into a structurally sound and occasionally tasty confectionary creation, felt like nothing short of a miracle.

I wonder if all pie-makers experience this? That measure, however small, of doubt always present in pie-making. Where you stare at this pile of wet, rubbery dough, nearly translucent, with a tinge of blue, looking more like the casing of some human organ, a distended spleen, filled with rock-hard apples. You are dubious. Maybe you poke a clammy corner, and ask: Are you gonna do that thing again? That thing where you turn into a pie?

And thus far in my experience, so long as that oven is set to 350, it always does.

And so I've made... lots and lots of pies.

If there was a potluck, I brought a pie. Carted pies to weird places, camp sites, lecterns, bicycle rides. It’s in my fricking online bio, good lord. I identify… with the pie.

There was a Cherry Lattice Pie over a numbed out Thanksgiving, a Stars-n-Stripes pie (blueberries for stars, strawberries and whipped cream for stripes) on a lonely Fourth of July.

There was a hard Christmas, where instead of going home, I huddled in a faraway town, hoping to avoid the season all together. But what to do with the dark stillness in the air? Strawbapple Pie! Strawberry-Rhubarb-Apple, my friends! Not one but THREE kinds of cheerful fruit smells to get even the most obstinate of atmospheres a-rippling.

Pies became little rounds of self-expression. Hopeful offerings of peace.

There was the summer visit home, where even among sunshine and swimsuits and a nephew with a beach ball, there was a distinct and impenetrable freeze in the air whenever my sister and I got near each other. How to hack away at the chill that had come to separate us over the years? Enter a tray of Blueberry Tartlettes! Watch them whimsically puff and pop into being. No matter if that freeze was still looming ready to take over, for a few splendid minutes there was laughter, there were dribbles of purple on the face, a nephew squealing for “more PURPLE cake!”

A poet I met in Virginia, John Casteen, said once that he believes writing to be the result of a simple equation: experience + pressure. I think it’s the same with pie.

With my grad program rolling around to completion, I was sitting on my porch with my friend Kidda, and I said out loud for the first time, a little idea that had been taking shape in my mind:

What if I started a blog? I'd call it 52 Pies. Each Sunday, a different pie. I could give the recipe, and tell the story of its invention and sneak a little bit about that week’s troubles into each one, and then watch it all get baked away. There could be pie history and pie --

I was thinking about how there was so much to say about pie. You can just tell by looking at them, they have fueled armies. Far sturdier than their prissy cousin, the cake, the pie is a more noble creature that provides sustenance in times of need. Pie. Squat pie. There were pies on the prairie, pies in Plymouth, pies in Philly nourishing the broody men who hammered out our country’s moral code. But pies did not originate in America, ha, far from it. There were pies in ancient Egypt! It’s almost as though the pie predates the wheel. It doesn’t. But almost! It’s that essential to culture. The first pie crust was likely made from barley and filled with honey, baked over hot coals. We could create an Egyptian pie, on the blog, talk about what endures from ancient times… senses of justice, pursuit of wealth, pie. Pies encourage creativity. In all the pie literature I’ve encountered (and there’s a lot of it) there’s always a strong insistence that whether medieval servants, corner-cutting colonialists, or scowling puritans... creativity always snuck in. Handfuls of spices, precious to these frugal folks, currants, dates, thyme? (why Goody Proctor, you minx!) always found their expression in pie. Pies are forgiving. Even a bad pie is a good pie.

They represented so much that I wanted to be, strong, moral, enduring, and maybe in making one, each week, my problems would --


It just fell out of his mouth like he’d had it stored up there all along. Like he’d long ago considered the matter and come to this unavoidable conclusion.

He was sick of pies. They were EVERYWHERE, he moaned. The cutesy pie proliferation had reached full-on idol worship. Pies in movies, in shops, in stories, on blogs, in magazines. What irritated him was not the pie itself, but the role they took on. In so many stories, so many movies and shows, he’d seen characters "find meaning" in pie. They’d shake some flour into the bowl, stir in a little water, come up with a creative filling, and boom, all problems would be baked away. It was the same every time. The Magical Pie. A giant FIX-ALL button in a 9” pan. Enough was enough. That’s not how life works.

I laughed and I probably threw something at him. But all spring it rang in my ears. Pies will cure nothing. Pies will cure nothing. All summer. All fall.

I think it was when I was baking a thing called Hi Pie that I finally got it.

Hi Pie was a pie I made in Chicago. It was filled with pear and goat cheese, honey and rosemary, and it was used to say hi -- Hi -- to a bunch of new folks in Chicago, where I had just landed for five weeks on the hope that by simply leaving town, my old uncertainties would evaporate behind me. Hi Pie. I presented it to these new people. Hi.

Was it that night, pan warm in my hand? Or maybe the next morning scrubbing the burnt crust off the metal?

I suddenly realized what it was I loved so much about pies -- and it wasn’t the strength, or the solidness, as I had thought. And it wasn’t quite Kidda's magical cure-all thing either.

All these years, it was the moment of disbelief I’d get, each time, when I pulled the pie from the oven. Why look at that! It worked again. I was like a kid, transfixed, watching a thing I thought could not be so. Do it again. Do it again -- apple, blueberry, pear -- my eyes glued to these wild illusions of change. As if the pan, that one tiny circle, with a radius of 4.5” was the only place such a thing could occur. Strawberry Rhubarb, Pecan, pie after pie popping into being, as my life sat quietly unchanging.

So, I decided to look into it. And here's what I have learned.

Pies are not miracles. They are the hydrating of Gliadin and Glutenin proteins which, when separated by bands of pure fat and subjected to heat, form appropriately separated structures that account for the substantial yet deliciously flaky experience of biting into crust.

Let the demystifying begin! When you add water to flour, it grabs two formerly isolated proteins -- Gliadin (which is sticky) and Glutenin (which is strong) -- and forms a super excellent protein compound supreme: GLUTEN. Gluten is both sticky AND strong, making the dough elastic (good for rolling out), and structurally sound (good for holding hot steamy apples). When you bake the dough, vast gluten networks harden, and give the crust its nice crunch. (Check out the gluten lattice, as seen by an electron microscope. Image used with permission from BakeInfo.}

But, as every pie-maker knows, too much water is a bad thing. Why? Because too much water means too much formation of gluten, which makes your crust too tough. And that brings us to the true mystery of pie-making: the vast variability in how a crust can turn out -- even with precisely the same measurements of water. Luckily for us, a man named Kenji Lopaz-Alt set himself to the task of figuring out why. He made 113 pies, altering the variables each time, and watched how the ingredients interacted.

He wrote an excellent post about this -- The Science of Pie Dough -- but here's a quick version of what he found. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT humidity in the air that accounts for crust variability! (I absolutely thought that it was). And, while traditional cookbooks say that the way it works is that the flour somehow gets trapped inside the butter, Kenji found, by actually watching, that it was precisely the opposite. Here’s my diagram of what he discovered.

The first thing you do when making crust, is cut the butter into little balls (essentially little fat globs). When you add the flour, each one gets coated in flour, so that when you add the water, what actually happens is each ball gets sort of a candy shell coating of gluten. Then, when you ROLL out the dough, you get stripes. And the stripes are the key. Long bands of gluten, separated by long bands of butter. When it bakes, instead of getting a tough, impenetrable, network of gluten -- which would make for a very hard crust -- those strong gluten layers are separated… into those coveted, buttery, crunchy, inexplicably delightful layers!  And that’s the key. Keeping the separation. Because the other way a crust can fail (besides too much water/ gluten), is if you overwork the ingredients. If you turn the butter, flour, and water to a homogenous paste, the crust turns out sandy, just sort of a wash of flour and butter without its distinctly crusty layers.

So there it is, folks.


That is, if you accept that pies will cure nothing, then you are forced to consider that change may be possible… outside the pan.

It was not but two days after Hi Pie that I called my sister. We had a good talk. Good, not that in that everything was solved, it was awkward and incomplete, but it was a start.

So on Pi Day, if you are like me, go make that that pie. Make it beautiful. Make it sparkle. (Send us a picture if you're so inclined.) But also…  tip your hat to Kidda… and go scream at someone.

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