I pulled into my parking spot at 5:30 last night with one item on my to-do list: I had to make a pie.
I've made countless pies in the past, so I knew the steps required: throw together a quick crust dough, chill for an hour; roll it out, chill a bit more. The filling is the easy part, so you can whip that up while the bottom crust is blindbaking; then your just have to put it all together and let it sit in the oven. I knew I might not have a finished product until almost bedtime, but as most of the prep time was marked "chill," I planned to spend a much of the evening doing the same. Netflix might even come into play.
Before I'd even opened my car door to head upstairs, I opened my go-to crust recipe, which lives inside the "How to Cook Everything" app – an interactive, digital version of Mark Bittman's famous cookbook. At least, I attempted to open the recipe. Instead, my phone alerted me that "The developer of this app needs to update it to work with iOS 11." Bittman, you slippery bastard. My ancient version of this app had been outmoded; a fresh new copy of the program was available, but it would cost $9.99, and on principle I couldn't bring myself to re-pay for an app that, to my mind, I already owned. Pie crust recipes are dime a dozen, and my roommates and I have a bookshelf full of cookbooks. Not, like, one shelf: the entire bookcase is full of cookbooks.
I pulled out my Cook's Illustrated Cookbook, a versatile (if sometimes overly fussy) kitchen treasure. They didn't have one recipe for pie crust. They had three recipes, all broken down further into single- and double-crust versions. Perfect. My eyes gravitated at first to "Classic Pie Crust," but then I noticed the name of the neighboring recipe: FOOLPROOF PIE CRUST. Now, I'm no fool, but I was looking to whip up something quick and easy and forego any unnecessary extra steps. It didn't have to be a culinary masterpiece, it needed to be a finished pie.
This was going to be a piece of cake. As the saying goes.
Pie crust recipes often call for a food processor, which I don't have. Instead, I always opt to cut in the butter myself; this naturally takes a lot more time and effort and doesn't necessarily yield better results. So I had the bright idea to break the recipe into halves and use a handy miniature food processor/blender tool that I often forget is living under my counter. Halving the ingredients was no struggle, but using the processor was; it was only macerating the flour and butter at the bottom of the mixer, and I was making a huge mess. I had to go in with my hands, a knife, and a spatula, just as if I hadn't used the processor at all. At one point, I knocked the thing over and sent a portion of my poorly mixed dough sailing across my stovetop, into all those hard-to-clean nooks and crannies. I had a flash to the previous day, when my roommate, Selah, and I were watching the just-added-to-Netflix season of Great British Baking Show and I'd said aloud, "How can these people be so clumsy?" Oof. To make matters worse, when all was said and done, I knew the dough didn't look right. It was way too dry. I looked back at the recipe.
Fuck. The shortening! I had only added the butter. This kind of rookie omission was abnormal for me, but butter is practically a religion in my maternal lineage, and the addition of shortening to pie crust was not my custom. It had totally slipped my mind after reading the recipe. And the shortening was supposed to be chilled.
I went back to my shitty little mini Cuisinart and added the shortening I'd hastily chilled – in two batches, of course, as that's all that could fit in the small container. A lot of filling and emptying and spilling and refilling later, I had dirtied two more bowls and created a dough that was wrong in the opposite way – it was almost a paste, way too wet to do anything with, and this was before I had even added any liquid. I messed with it a bit more, prepped it for a deep chill, stuck two dough disks in the freezer, and prayed. Meanwhile, I complained to Selah that my lack of proper equipment was hindering me. She replied (generously, if too late), "do you want to use my food processor?" She then pointed to the full-sized Cuisinart that has been sitting on the bottom shelf of our pantry for, oh, probably 18 months. Goddammit, Marissa.
Fast-forward one hour. I'd made some headway with bottom crust (incorporating lots of flour during the rolling) and successfully wrangled it into the pie tin. Covered with foil, filled with baking weights, I stuck it into the very hot oven and noticed that I'd forgotten to remove the baking sheets we store in there. They were now too hot to be moved. Oh well. I only needed the bottom shelf. Seven minutes later, our apartment seemed a bit smoky. And after another minute, our smoke alarm went off. Part of the crust edge had fallen onto the oven floor and was blackening into floury charcoal oblivion. I apologized profusely for the smoke and the smell and self-flagellated about my growing list of mistakes. Luckily Selah is a laid-back angel who knows how these things go, so she didn't bat an eye as I threw open every door and window in the place.
At this point, I decided it was time to chill myself. I rolled out a top crust that I knew would be ugly, and then asked Selah if she was up for the remainder of the Bake Off episode we had to finish. She was. She offered to light a scented candle to distract from the smoky odor and I plopped onto the couch with a considerably sized cocktail. We proceeded to watch 11 of the best home bakers in Britain make an absolute mess of their gingerbread house challenge. Gingerbread walls were destroyed, gingerbread trees were burnt, gingerbread bell towers crumbled under their own weight. Selah cringed at the scrambling contestants – "this is painful to watch" – and normally I'd have been right there with her. But at that moment, watching talented bakers make dumb mistakes felt pretty damn good.
I returned to my pie. The blind-baked bottom crust seemed acceptably golden and was holding together, even if my carefully fluted edges were smooshed. Those would be covered by the top crust anyway. I prepared the filling while the bottom crust cooled, and powered through a few more minor errors with a shrug. The top crust ripped as I put it in place, but I decided it didn't matter. I even made some last-minute decorative leaves with my paring knife, freehand. I'd never done that before, but I thought some creative flourish was in order. I smiled as I placed the crooked leaves over the crack. They were kind of cute.
Watching Bake Off, it had dawned on me: I wasn't making this pie to impress the judges. I wasn't going to be sent home if it was ugly, or chided by Mary Berry if it had a "soggy bottom." I was making this pie for the guests, mostly homeless, of All Saints' Beverly Hills' Monday Meal, which today was a Thanksgiving feast. The pie didn't need to be at home at in a patisserie window; it needed to be edible, and hopefully tasty. I'd stressed myself out and beaten myself up for turning something "foolproof" into such a shitshow. But now, I was over it. It would be no less, and no more, than an apple pie. Homeless people would eat it for dessert. Maybe it would remind them of their childhoods. Maybe it would be a sloppy mess. But either way, it would be a dessert, and it would be made with love and care.
This is what we do at this time of year, seasoned chef and kitchen neophyte alike. We take a crack at putting our heart into the food we make. Sometimes, as with putting one's heart into anything, the process is more painful than we bargained for, and the whole business would be much simpler if we cared a little less about how things turned out. But caring is a part of the magic. Wanting to make something for another person, and to make it well, is a prayer and a sacrifice and a blessing...and that's true even if a chunk of what you made falls off and burns up in the oven.
Anyone who looked at a slice of my craggy, mottled pie would know that it wasn't made in a factory. But when I took it out of the oven at damn near 11pm, I was pleasantly surprised. It was no masterpiece, but it had its own unique, handmade beauty. And it smelled amazing.
I guess the recipe was foolproof after all.