I’d happily eat the guts of any pie. But the crust? That’s another story. Nasty, floppy, soggy things — barely excusable pastry envelope for a pie’s tasty innards.
Let me eat cake.
That is, until I was offered a slice of award-winning pie — apple candied ginger pie. I couldn’t say no to award-winning pie, especially when offered by the blue ribbon baker. I felt cornered, but how bad could it be? She’d not only been given a ribbon for her efforts, but also a cash reward. Money talks. I accepted.
If it wasn’t singing I heard at first bite, it was certainly my taste buds waking from a long pie-starved slumber. This is what a pie crust was meant to be: Flaky and buttery; one that shatters when I sliced my fork through to the sweet apple goodness inside, bits of candied ginger surprising each bite.
It’s official, I’m a convert.
If you aren’t convinced pie is for you, silently dreading the obligatory Thanksgiving dessert, don’t worry, I have two books for you. Steady yourself, then surprise family and friends by offering to bring pie, and get to baking.
Kate Lebo, Pacific Northwest-born pie baker and expert, founded Pie School to teach novice bakers how to master the art of pie. Her cookbook, appropriately named Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour and Butter, will ease you into the hows and whys of a flaky pie crust and introduce you to a variety of delicious insides to fill it.
I opted for her award-winning crust — Purple Ribbon Piecrust — not only because it is award winning, but also because Lebo says that I needn’t worry about its ragged appearance.
“If your fresh-baked pie looks a bit homely,” she writes, “you’re doing it right.”
I doubled the recipe and filled her crusts with apples and quince from her Rose Family Pie recipe, then popped both in the oven. Why two? Because I wanted to see which pie pan would give me the best Thanksgiving dessert, but more on that later.
If you are already a born pie lover, then The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop is the one for you.
Pie bakers and sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen use bitters and spices to enhance the fillings in their creative pies — paprika for the peaches, lavender and bitters for the blueberries, juniper for the pears. All these intriguing additions provide a backbone to the flavor, layering it beyond just “sweet.”
I love bitter, so the idea of adding a little bit of it to a pie was just as fine to me as adding it to a cocktail. I was rewarded for my faithfulness to the recipe, as bitters seem to act like a sort of healthful MSG, keeping me hooked and coming back for more. Consider yourself warned.
I wowed my family and myself with the Concorde Grape Pie. Jammy and reminiscent of childhood, it’s rather sophisticated with its dash of bitters and beautifully cut crust.
Having The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book on my shelf guarantees that no matter what sort of fruit I find at the market — or hiding in my freezer — there’s a pie to be made. A pie that is delicious and, in my mind, completely appropriate to serve for dinner, lunch and certainly breakfast.
Now, to the issue of pie pans. A good pie pan yields not only an impressive pie, but also one pretty enough to bring to the holiday meal, one worthy of waiting on Grandma’s sideboard until dessert be served.
“Here,” Huffman says, “try this pie plate and you’ll never go back.”
Daily Bird Pottery is crafted from red clay and left unglazed, giving each piece a very earthy tactility. The pie plate is at once beautiful and utilitarian, light yet sturdy.
“Our pottery starts out feeling a little rough,” Huffman tells me, “but after days and months of use, it smooths out.”
The pie plate he gave me was used in his own kitchen, home to pieces that have subtle imperfections that keep him from selling them to customers. But for me, it’s the perfect fit. A pie plate of slight imperfection for my pies of the same.
Daily Bird Pottery is named for the birds Huffman’s wife, Phoebe, sculpts daily from clay. Providing a moment of daily reflection, her daily birds also serve another purpose: proceeds from Phoebe’s birds go to support a charity of the Huffman’s choosing. Each month they select a different charity to support.
It’s Thanksgiving, and this month Phoebe has sculpted her clay birds to benefit the Boiler Room in Port Townsend, a community place for local youth and young at heart to come and share a meal, find friendship and support, learn job skills and express themselves creatively.
The birds are a tender aspect of the Huffman’s small business, also a whimsical one. Phoebe will leave a clay bird resting on a park bench or beach rock with a noted tag reading, “If you find me, you can keep me!”
I didn’t just find one clay bird that Sunday, but an entire pie-full. Phoebe sent 24 black clay blackbird pie weights, which Huffman carefully placed in a pie plate for me to see.
“Here are your four and twenty blackbirds in a pie!” said Darby.
More than a pie plate, he also gave me a challenge.
“One time we were making pie,” Huffman tells, “and to our surprise we ran out of our pie plates. So our daughter Xoe found a glass one and we used that for one of our pies. It was a happy accident because we were able to test our pie plate against the glass one. And ours was better! Try it, you’ll see.”
I asked why his pie plate would be so much better than another.
“Because everything tastes better in our clay.” he replies.
Not one to shrink from a challenge, and certainly not one involving multiple pies, I got to work with Kate Lebo’s Rose Family Pie.
“That’s my family’s favorite Thanksgiving pie.” she tells me, “It’s all about the quince!”
The first pie I put in a U.S.-made professional grade aluminum pie pan, the other in the Daily Bird’s pie plate. I cooked both at the same time rotating them to allow for even baking.
In the end, the pie from the aluminum pan wasn’t shabby, but the clay-dished pie surpassed. I served up slices from both pies and asked samplers to tell me which slice they preferred. Unanimously, the Daily Bird’s pie was chosen.
The clay dish bakes the pie more evenly as the clay holds a consistent temperature yielding a pie crust that is flaky throughout. The aluminum pan provided a crispy exterior but with more chew and softness near the crust’s center.
Don’t get me wrong, both pies were delicious, and Lebo is right in saying that it’s all about the quince. The other sweeter members of the Rosaceae family are balanced by the quince’s tartness. But Huffman’s pie plate is just a bit better, not to mention prettier. It won hands down for pie presentation.
With both Pie School and The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book I feel armed and ready with an arsenal of pie crusts and delicious fillings. Less afraid to add to the Thanksgiving meal, I will come proudly bearing my dessert, exclaiming, “Let us eat pie!”
Who should buy Pie School: Anyone with a fear of pie baking. Those looking to hone their novice pie baking skills. // Sasquatch Books, $24.95 // Available on Amazon.com
Who should buy The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Adventurous pie lovers. // Grand Central Life & Style, $30 // Available on Amazon.com
Daily Bird Pottery: Visit Phoebe and Darby Huffman at the Ballard Farmers Market, Sundays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or at their Port Townsend pottery studio, 2009 4th St, Port Townsend. For more information, visit dailybirdpottery.com. For information on the Boiler Room visit ptbr.org.