Essay

I’m a Professional Baker, but the Best Pies I Ever Made Were With My Grandma

Resident baker-at-large Erin McDowell on learning to bake—and falling in love with pie—at her grandmother's house in Kansas.

November 26, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Sarah Jampel. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Grandma Jeanne’s house was a family heirloom, a true “little house on the prairie” in the tiny rural town of Overbrook, Kansas. The house was originally built by my great-great-great-grandparents in 1866, and was passed down to my grandma’s grandma, Clara. My grandma visited her there as a child—she and her brother would sometimes sneak her lightly spiced sugar cookies from the jar that sat in the kitchen window before scurrying back home down the road. My dad grew up visiting the house, too, and when my grandpa passed away at just 60, Grandma Jeanne decided to return to the family homestead for good. She put in proper plumbing and tacked on a little addition, and just like that, it was “Grandma’s House” to a new generation of grandkids, including me.

At Grandma’s House, I was always allowed free reign in the kitchen. It started with elaborately arranged snack plates of peanut butter, marshmallows, and chocolate chips I would assemble for my cousins and me when we’d have sleepovers there. Grandma would let me use any plates or cups I wanted—even the fancy cut crystal ones that she kept in a separate cabinet. She’d just shrug and say, “They’re meant to be used!” So we’d sip lemonade out of delicate wine glasses on the floor.

This freedom eventually gave way to actual baking: first, homemade cookies, then adventures in basic bread loaves (she loved her bread maker and slathering still-warm slices with butter). And then, when I was about 14, we started baking pies together. While I gladly followed her lead, she definitely started it. She confessed once, over a slice of piping hot apple pie, that having company gave her a good excuse to bake because then she wouldn’t be tempted to eat the whole thing herself.

But I also remember the day she told me that pie was something meant to be eaten fresh. She said a homemade pie will always be better than one you pick up at even the best local bakery—because you made it. (Not to mention a freshly baked pie makes the house smell lovely, and you get to dive in exactly when it’s at its most perfect.) Today, these very sentiments are my favorite things about baking pie, though I may never know if it’s because they’re so perfectly true or if it’s just because Grandma Jeanne said them.

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Top Comment:
“Letting me play with anything I wanted, including the fancy dinnerware, was SUCH a Grandma move. For her and I, it wasn't pie but instead a weekend sleepover of batch after batch of cookies baked together every year to give out to family Christmas eve in old Danish butter cookie tins. Thank you for the memory, brought a tear to my eye.”
— Jess T.
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We experimented with an olive oil crust once. We were pleasantly surprised that it was still tender and even had a bit of flake, but flavorwise had nothing on our usual butter-based version. Though our ventures into pie-baking were completely casual and often haphazard, I was learning how to test recipes in that kitchen. Her kitchen was the ultimate safe space to learn and make changes and be creative. There was no fear of making a mistake, because we were only baking for ourselves. Sure, we’d share the results when they were successful, but if they were disasters, we’d just laugh about them over a few hands of cards afterwards.

When I got my first bakery job at 16, the scope of our baking increased: Instead of baking just one pie, we’d bake a few for her to take to neighbors. Once my mom knew we could handle a bigger number, she allowed us to officially take over the baking of the Thanksgiving pies. Our family’s Thanksgiving regularly had 25 or 30 guests in attendance, and the feeling I got by making a real contribution to that big, beautiful meal was one of the things that sealed the deal for me: I wanted to work in food.

I kept baking pies (and writing about them) all through pastry school. Once I graduated, I took pies with me wherever I went (ask anyone who’s ever interviewed me for a job or let me stage, or shadow—I’ve baked them a pie). And if you’re someone close to me and I love you, you’ve probably eaten more pies than you can handle.

Today, when I bake a pie, I feel so many things. I’m reminded of memories of my food-loving family, of that incredible little house where so many generations cooked and ate. I miss my grandma and feel her with me all at once. I feel thankful, too; baking pies was really what showed me at such a young age what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve spent every moment I can manage since trying to celebrate the ways food nourishes us. When I spend time in the kitchen, I feed my soul—and I can thank my grandma for teaching me that.


Pie Recipes by Erin McDowell

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • John Broadis
    John Broadis
  • Jess Tylkowski
    Jess Tylkowski
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I always carry three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's pie. My first cookbook, The Fearless Baker, is out on October 24, 2017.

2 Comments

John B. November 27, 2019
It wasn't my Grandmother but my Mother who taught 'us boys' how to cook. Last spring I received the bread (buns) lesson. She's 74. I'm 51. She recently collected all her recipes into one big binder and gave us (her sons and granddaughters) cookbooks. It's amazing to see her granddaughters all go out to farm, cookbooks in hand, for 'lessons'.
 
Jess T. November 26, 2019
Letting me play with anything I wanted, including the fancy dinnerware, was SUCH a Grandma move. For her and I, it wasn't pie but instead a weekend sleepover of batch after batch of cookies baked together every year to give out to family Christmas eve in old Danish butter cookie tins. Thank you for the memory, brought a tear to my eye.