Catherine Clark, a long-time King Arthur Flour aficionado and pie baker, shares her experience of baking hundreds and hundreds of pies on the way to crafting a perfect replica of her mother’s apple pie. Our special thanks to Elaine Marten, many of whose photos illustrate this story.
The older I get, the more I become like my mother.
During my 40s, I had no problem in becoming more like my mother with every passing year. My mom is a remarkable person, a wonderful woman with dozens of good qualities, any number of which I would be glad – nay, honored – to incorporate into my own profile.
But as time marched on, I began to see that it wasn’t that simple. For one thing, I’d actually have to get older. Fifty and even beyond – which, like many other Baby Boomers, I thought of as a hideous fate that would befall everyone but me.
Also, I couldn’t pick and choose the ways in which I began to resemble my mother. So instead of taking on my mom’s patience, tact and discretion, I acquired her laugh and the way she tilts her head when posing for photographs. Her superhuman work ethic passed me by, but I began to exhibit signs of her skepticism about restaurants (“I could have made this entire meal at home for the cost of one glass of wine!”)
As my 50th birthday neared, it became clear I needed to identify and consciously acquire one outstanding talent or habit or ability that both defined my mom in the hearts and minds of her family, and yet was accessible enough to be a possibility for me. There was, in the end, really no question. To truly honor my mom, to create a family tradition of handing a skill down from mother to daughter (or son) – it had to be cooking or baking.
And in the end, it had to be pie.
My mom is the best – the very best – cook and baker that I’ve ever known. Entirely self-taught, the second-oldest girl in a big family where meals were simply another chore, she’s a truly great, instinctive cook.
My mom’s baked goods are all excellent, but for sheer symbolic heft, nothing beats her pie. For years I watched her throw flour and Crisco and salt into her faithful stainless-steel bowl, mix it with her hands, splash in some water, and roll out the resulting dough almost as an afterthought. The dough was always supple and stretchy; it rolled out smoothly as a length of silk, and practically floated into the waiting pie pan.
But even in my forties, looking back on all those years in her kitchen, I still didn’t quite grasp the concept of pie crust. I watched my mother make pie, helped by slicing the apples or washing up the mixing bowls, and absorbed little snippets of advice and information that she passed along, but I never made a pie (or anything else) under her tutelage. It was time to begin.
I started with the cookbooks that my mom had received as wedding presents in 1956 (and passed on to me), then branched out and looked at apple pie recipes in contemporary cookbooks and online. The recipes were all basically the same (flour, salt, shortening, water), and I decided that the point wasn’t finding the best or most reliable formula – yet – but rather getting my hands in the flour and messing around with the ingredients.
Here’s the first big lesson, and it took me months to recognize it – pies are uniquely challenging. And even a purportedly easy, foolproof recipe is no guarantee of success. As any cook or baker can attest, the process is as important as the product.
The recipe would be simple, straightforward, and easy to understand, but for months every pie I made was different from the one before: some were acceptable, some were pretty good, and some barely edible. This was absolutely maddening at the outset, but ended up being one of the best aspects of what I began to call the Pie Project: as in Buddhist philosophy, change is the only constant.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in taking on the challenge of the Mom-worthy pie crust, I was simultaneously addressing some larger concerns that had to do with The Big Picture: growing older, watching my children leave home, setting aside time and energy to devote to my husband when it felt like every breath I drew was for my children’s benefit.
It was, and is, the same litany that every mother repeats to herself as the children outgrow their childhood: How can you leave me? How can I let you go? Why are you in such a hurry to depart, when we have so little time left together – and that so fleeting? And most of all, Who will I be when you’re gone?
I’m not saying that these questions were answered by baking or eating or serving apple pie (although it didn’t hurt). But trying to understand the essential nature of apple pie gave me a goal and a challenge, which took my mind off those pesky Aging Mom questions. I went from being fearful and doubt-ridden about my pies to using their production as an opportunity to focus and think – all while sifting flour through my fingers, or peeling apples. It was very restful, in a way. It was like the best kind of meditation, both calming and productive.
It’s probably safe to say that in about three years I made at least 400 pies. If no one was around the house, I often called up friends or neighbors and said, “Want a pie? Fresh out of the oven.” After awhile it got harder to give the pies away locally and I had to venture farther afield with them. I became a familiar sight, roaming the neighborhood with a pie held in front of me like a sacramental vessel. A friend started calling me the Pie Lady. She still does.
Nowadays, about 8 years later, I make fruit pies almost entirely by feel. I can’t do a good estimate of the total pies produced by my quest, but up to a zillion is a fair guess. This is not to imply that I’ve become an expert at anything; I still learn something almost every time I bake. But it does indicate that I’m always happy with my hands in a bowl of flour.
The crust thing is no longer scary to me: I may not be quite on the same footing as my mom, but I’m in the zone. She ate a slice of my apple pie on her last visit, and then had a second slice. “Boy, this is good,” she said. That accolade lit up my little baker’s universe for months.
So has Mom’s assurance resolved the becoming-mom thing? Yeah, it pretty much has. My mom is still baking at the age of 81. My dad is still eating the results of her baking at the age of 83. I hope, decades from now, I’ll be able to say the same for myself.
Every week I buy a bag of Granny Smiths, as there’s always one more pie I want to bake. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
First, the filling. This is the easiest part in terms of outcome – it’s hard to ruin apples mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and butter. As for variety of apple, it’s Granny Smiths all the way. Their flesh is crisp, the slices keep their shape after baking, and they’re tart rather than too sweet.
Here in New England, we’re fortunate to have dozens of local apple varieties to choose from, among them heirloom fruits that make wonderful pies. But they’re only available for a few weeks in the fall, and then it’s back to the supermarket produce aisle, and those faithful Granny Smiths.
Take 5 or 6 Granny Smith apples. Peel, core, quarter, and slice them lengthwise, to a thickness that renders 4 to 8 slices per quarter, depending on the size of the apple. Put them in a large mixing bowl, tossing them with a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice if they begin to brown. When all the apples are sliced, add the following, mixing until the apples are well coated: white sugar, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, butter, salt, and optional lemon juice. Don’t worry that I’ve forgotten the precise measurements; it’s more sadistic than that: I simply don’t use them any longer.
Let the apples sit in their marinade for 20 minutes or so, while you do the crust. When you transfer the sliced fruit to the crust-lined pan, you’ll want to squeeze any extra juice out of it. This excess slurry can be boiled down to a delicious, soft-caramel spread that’s excellent on toast.
Now, on to the crust – a word that strikes terror into the hearts of many otherwise fearless bakers.
I know any number of accomplished, confident professional women, with important jobs and fabulously impractical shoes, who practically gibber with terror at the prospect of rolling out pie crust. When I show up with a pie at a dinner party, I’m always asked by other women, “Did you make that crust? From scratch? Was it hard? What ingredients did you use?” Their unfeigned amazement and congratulations are touching; and the fear-of-failure thing is not unfounded: I’ve made many unsatisfactory crusts in my time.
If I’m making one double-crust pie, I empty 2 cups of King Arthur white flour into a big mixing bowl. This is the only ingredient that I still ritually measure. Then I add salt, about a teaspoon, and more later if the crust tastes bland.
I scoop a handful of Crisco out of its can and work it into the flour. Then I add a smaller handful – palmful, sometimes – of softened butter, and mix again. These are my secrets, and I share them with you: butter and Crisco make s crust with better texture and more flavor than Crisco alone. You don’t need much butter, because even a small amount makes a difference.
When the texture of the flour/fat/salt looks kind of pebbly and coarse, I start pouring in ice water. I always put ice in the water, and I always use much more water, added faster, than most recipes recommend – I splash in maybe a half to two-thirds of a cup, for a double crust. This, more than any other ingredient except the flour, dictates how the crust will turn out, and educates the baker as to how the dough should feel.
The dough should soak up the water till it’s kind of goopy and feels wet. It will all cohere in one loose, untidy ball. If you tear that ball in half, the dough should stretch and look shredded, ragged. Don’t worry that the dough feels too moist: you’ll be rolling it on a floured surface and sprinkling more flour on top so it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin. Even this small addition of flour will completely even out the dough’s texture.
Warning: don’t over-handle the dough, despite the pleasure of working it with your hands. It should roll out smoothly, as elastic and stretchy as the circles of pizza dough TV Italian chefs toss in the air.
Next, preheat the oven to 425°F. Divide the ball of dough in half. Place one half on a lightly floured surface (preferably moveable; I use a large wooden cutting board), and roll it out with a rolling pin. Remember to roll from the middle to the edge, not from one side to the other; rotate the cutting board rather than the crust, if possible.
When the dough is uniformly rolled, lift and transfer it to a 9” pie pan. Trim any excess from the edges. Using a slotted spoon or your hands, stir the apple slices to distribute the sweet spice mixture. Taste one last time. Then lift the apples into the pie pan, squeezing to extract as much juice as possible. They should fill the pan, but not mound in the middle.
Dot the fruit with a 3 or 4 pats of butter (about 2 to 3 tablespoons). Roll out the second half of dough and lift it onto the pie. Trim off any excess and, working around the circumference of the pan, press the edges together with your thumb and forefingers to make a decorative, sealed rim.
Slash the crust with a knife or fork so steam can escape. Lastly, brush the crust with water, and sprinkle it generously with white sugar.
Bake the pie at 425°F for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 400°F and bake until the top crust is golden in spots and the filling bubbles through any small holes, anywhere from 20 to 35 additional minutes. (This is usually shorter than the baking times suggested in cookbooks.) I use a crust shield (a 9” aluminum circle) to protect the crust from getting too dark. When the pie is done, remove it from the oven, and let it cool for half an hour on a cooling rack. Then serve it with ice cream or heavy cream.
Even after baking so many pies, I never get over the feeling of anticipatory pleasure and interest in how the next pie will turn out. There’s one coming out of the oven now. Stop by.
Catherine would like to add this note, written to all who’ve expressed their thoughts below: “I am writing to thank you all for taking the time to read this essay, and for your unbelievably kind, funny, gracious and generous comments. It has been wonderful hearing from each and all of you. With my sincere gratitude, Catherine.”