By Marlene Lang
We made the crust with lard. Animal lard that our 4-H leader had provided suspiciously sans label. It came in a huge Tupperware container labeled “4-H” in black marker. The lard would give it a gray-brown cast that was different from the buttery yellow Crisco crust my mom made. It would be my first pie.
The youth club gathered in the home of an eccentric farm mom down the road; she hollered instead of speaking and had straight, short hair that stuck up in all directions, ten years before spiking became a thing.
We started with the lard and Pillsbury bleached flour and cut them together until we could form a dough to roll out. My arms were sore after only a few minutes of pressing the fork through lard and flour, turning the bowl, pressing again. My mom made this look so easy. It took a lot of pressing and turning before it looked like pie dough.
The next challenge was rolling the dough into something flat, and then placing that flat dough into a pie pan. It seemed I could not both roll the dough thin and move it into the pan; like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, I had to choose one state of dough-ness. Speed of the crust or location of the crust. I went for a thicker disc of dough that was transferable into the pan. Probably a mistake.
Did anyone ever eat an apple pie and ask,
Who peeled these apples?
No. No one ever asked. After this I would ask.
Then we had to peel and cut the apples. Every apple. Many apples. Did anyone ever eat an apple pie and ask, Who peeled these apples? No. No one ever asked. After this I would ask. These were Cortland apples. Did it make a difference? Yes, I learned. Some apples are not fit for pies. The best pie apples don’t look the prettiest, like Red Delicious.
We tossed the slices in sugar and flour and cinnamon until every precious, peeled piece was coated and then we piled the mix into the unbaked crust, sidelined during the peeling and slicing and mixing. The sugar would release the juices and the flour would thicken it during baking. Cinnamon was for flavor.
The top crust had to look good. I’d patched the bottom one a little, where it had cracked in transfer. There was a secret to getting the consistency just right that I would not master until I was a mother who’d baked on many holidays and made many mistakes. Too light and it won’t hold together; add water or egg or milk to help it adhere and it can get tough. Pie crust is an art not mastered in a day. That day I added a little more water to the second half of the dough, reworked it with aching 9-year-old hands, and rolled it out as thin as I could. The thickness had to be even throughout, or the thin parts would burn. Dough stuck to the rolling pin. I’d sprinkle it with flour and press and roll a little more.
Sliding the rolled dough toward my pile of dusted apple slices, I laid it on top, feeling the victory: The top is in one piece! Now, we folded it under the bottom crust’s edge that had been hanging over the side of the pan, waiting. I remember my mom’s trick of pinching the top and bottom crusts together as you circled your work, forming the wavy pattern that was really the prints of a thumb and forefinger.
Next, our paring knife could cut a pretty pattern into the top, not just for decoration but to let out the steam as the apples baked and the juice formed into sugary goo. I made a starburst of cuts and sprinkled some cinnamon on top just to be arty.
Into the oven.
We cleaned up our mess as we waited. Bowls to wash, peels to sweep up that had dropped to the floor unnoticed. Flour everywhere. The baking magic was happening. We’d put all the pieces together, but the heat of the oven and time would turn it into a fresh baked apple pie.
It took more than an hour. November in Wisconsin meant it was dark out the kitchen widow when we inched the pies from the oven, wearing large padded mitts, placing them on a ledge of bricks we’d prepared on an enclosed porch. There they would cool, enough to transport home when our parent arrived.
My pie was a real pie! It wasn’t as pretty as my mom’s pies, not symmetrical. The juices had spilled through the slats, bubbled on the top crust and made brown marks. But it looked like an apple pie. Boom. I was a pie baker.
The apple pie rode the two miles home, on my lap. I placed it on our stove and went to bed, tired. My father came home an hour or so later from his late shift at the factory. He and my mom spoke in the kitchen; I listened through open iron venting in my bedroom floor, the kind that was meant to let heat rise from a coal or wood stove.
“Oooo. Pie. What kind? Apple?”
“Yes. Marlene made it at her 4-H club tonight.”
“Our baby baked a whole pie by herself?” my dad said to my mom. I could hear a fork tinking on a plate and I smiled.
And this is how I became emotionally hitched to pie baking. It’s hard work that makes you wait. And then people you love enjoy it. Pie is a win-win.
PHILOSOPHY PIE and this blog are the property of Marlene B. Lang. Copyright 2018.