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The Illusive Art Of Pie Making

January 23 is National Pie Day – here are some tricks for making a great pie.

Chess Pie is a creamy custard pie with a pastry base originating in the Deep South. Purchase the January 2017 issue for the full recipe!

Chess Pie is a creamy custard pie with a pastry base originating in the Deep South. Purchase the January 2017 issue for the full recipe!

Attending school in the north of England as a child, I was surrounded by classmates whose surnames were a source of endless mirth and merriment: Shufflebottom, Clutterbuck, Smellie and a friend of a friend whose name was Dolly Jolly. Much to my chagrin, I was not exempt from the ridicule. My last name was Pye: blueberry Pye, meat and potato Pye, cherry Pye – I was subject to them all. I couldn’t wait to grow up, get married and lose the sobriquets for good. Fast-forward 30 years, and not only have I adopted a new name but also a country where I have become as American as, well, apple pie.

In all likelihood, my ancestors were accomplished bakers, but alas, I didn’t inherit their talent. My mille-feuilles are floppy; my strudels, soggy; my cakes, like sunken craters. An excellent pie maker and friend once told me that following the recipe and accurately measuring ingredients were the key components of successful baking. While I’m not opposed to following recipes, I see them more as guidelines than mandates. 

Under the guise of “creative artiste,” I prefer to just toss things in a bowl or substitute whatever’s in the pantry. In fact, my son never tires of telling about the time when we – Betty Crocker and I – made brownies but were short on eggs and oil. So I substituted mayonnaise, which is, after all, just eggs and oil. The greasy, rock-hard rendering was not only inedible but also quite humbling for one who writes about food. So when I was asked to investigate the art of pie making for National Pie Day on January 23, I knew I would have to step up my game. 

When it comes to pies, I tend to agree with Carl Sagan who said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” To me, the idiom “as easy as pie” is a misguided euphemism. Like the wisecracking hosts of “The Great British Bake-Off,” I admit to having a few soggy bottoms in my past.