If you had asked me a year ago what I thought of cherry pie, the image of a cloying ruby filling would pop into my head—gelatinous goo spilling from the sides of a tough crust. Perhaps because I ate cherry pie at Denny’s once. Last August, I changed my mind. I reluctantly dug my fork into a golden pie, imbued with sour cherries from Wisconsin. The flavor was tart and sweet, a marriage of lemon zest and sugar.
The two women responsible for this change of cherry-pie heart met me for a drink last weekend (perfect timing considering that this Saturday, 3/14/15, is National Pi Day. Yeah, the numerical pi, but what the heck?).We discussed preferred fats for crust and apples for filling, and why people are drawn to pie.
But first let me tell you how I met these fellow bakers and pie enthusiasts.
Ellen Gray—baker and blogger for No More Mr. Nice Pie—and I pitted and peeled fresh fruit for 80 pies this past September for an upstate New York retreat called The Longhouse Food Revival. With experience baking at a small shop in Maplewood, N.J., and owning a restaurant in Philadelphia, making 80 pies is nothing new for Gray. I was instantly drawn to her theatrical prance in the kitchen, swerving between checking the hot oven and testing filling for imperfections.
Upon moving to Seattle and getting a job as a baker, I attended the launch party at the Pike Place Market Atrium for Seattleite Kate Lebo’s cookbook, Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour and Butter. After trying several of her pies, including marionberry with hazelnut crumble and plum with sprinkles of fresh thyme, her book is part of my permanent collection.
When Gray said she would be visiting Seattle, I knew I had to set up a meeting with my pie muses, representing the East and West Coasts.
After leaving Lebo’s “Pie School” class at the Pike Place Market Atrium Kitchen, I stroll behind the two, listening to them lust over apple varieties. Gray likes making pie with Macoun apples from New York, but Lebo says she can’t get them in the Northwest. Lebo reminisces about a trip to Massachusetts where she found heirloom apple varieties like Belle de Boskoop, which she says shine when baked or sauced.
The apple banter began in response to a question I posed: If you could eat only one, which pie would you choose?
Gray won’t pick a favorite, insisting she could have two: peach and strawberry rhubarb. Lebo argues peach is perhaps the hardest to make, so she would choose apple for its ease and comfort.
“Apple because that’s real food,” she says.
Both women would make the pie themselves. “I only want to eat my pie,” Lebo says.
“Me too,” agrees Gray.
“It’s a pie-lady thing,” Lebo says.
Drinks in hand, I ask: “Why pie?”
“There is human connection in pie,” Gray says. “It conjures memories that other desserts don’t; there is always a story.”
For Gray, it stirs childhood recollections of pie for breakfast; sheet trays of them on the farm where she worked; making her son his favorite nut pie, which she calls Drew’s Wild Nut Pie; and hours of work fluting and forming crusts in her current role as a baker and blogger.
Lebo began making pie in her early 20s as a break from writing poetry. Her other book, A Commonplace Book of Pie, was part poetry book, part cookbook. “Pie was instant gratification,” she says. When crafting a poem was challenging, she knew she could be successful baking a pie.
After years of making a career surrounded in flaky pastry and literary work, Lebo says she has lost sight of why she focuses specifically on pie. “It’s something I know how to do well and can teach, so it puts gas in my car and pays my rent. Just pie itself doesn’t have a lot of growth potential, and I’ve gone as far as I can go with it, so the next thing to do is figure out what is next.”
Gray probes Lebo for what might be in her future. “It’s always food-related,” Lebo says.
Aside from their personal love for pie, Gray says the timing for pie is good now: “Pie is the new cupcake.”
Earlier, Lebo told her “Pie School” students that a great advantage to being a master is that it is impressive to show up to a party with a pie rather than just a bottle of wine.
“Many people are uncomfortable with pie, having never baked it,” Gray says. “It is a mysterious dessert that requires skill to make.”
Lebo nods in agreement, knowing this is why people take her classes—to learn firsthand how to overcome a complicated recipe and know by feel what it takes to bake an exceptional pie.
“People touch the crust too much,” Lebo says. “Be gentle but firm.”
A large part of Lebo’s class is instruction on what dough should feel like and how to form it. She laughs as she explains how difficult it can be to describe a certain step in writing. Her latest book takes several extensive pages just to describe the process for her all-butter crust.
“People who are good with their hands are good with pie,” Lebo says.
Lebo gingerly forms these crusts in her new kitchen in Spokane, where she takes refuge between book tours; Gray, in the bakery where she experiments with flavors and dreams up the signature puns for her blog, which she calls “pie-isms.” As Gray says herself, “The oven mitts are coming off.”