Pie

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Erin McDowell's New Cookbook

November 23, 2020
Photo by Nico Schinco

I baked my first pie alongside my Grandma Jeanne when I was 14 years old. It was for a church social, and she was experimenting with an olive oil crust.

I’d always loved cooking and baking, but Grandma’s country kitchen was less stressful than my mother’s, because Grandma was more accepting of a mid-process mess. I distinctly remember the proud feeling carrying the pie into the church and serving it. Many bakers will tell you that sharing baked goods with others is their favorite part—and it quickly became mine.

But Grandma’s face when she finally tasted a slice was firmly dissatisfied. She proclaimed it tender, but not flaky. I, on the other hand, was thrilled that this dissatisfaction led to us making another pie on my next “Grandma Day” (the nickname we used when anyone in the family spent time with Jeanne). We played card games as it chilled, baked, and cooled—well, for five minutes, give or take. We ate it so piping hot that the ice cream on top instantly melted, creating an delightfully spoon-requiring apple pie soup we happily gobbled up in our pajamas. It was flaky and buttery and not-too-sweet, just so good.

That was it. I was in love with baking. And pie was the pastry that opened the floodgates.

Photo by Nico Schinco

Flash Forward

A few years ago: I turned in the proposal for a still-untitled Pie Cookbook to my publisher. I’d always wanted to write a book about pie—but with so many amazing books on the subject, I wanted to make sure I was bringing something new to the conversation.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I am an Erin Jeanne McDowell super fan :) !! Despite a good 45 years of baking and feeling like I knew what I was doing, I have learned so much: Biscuits, puff/rough puff, pie crust ... I am truly "baking it up a notch" ... actually several notches. I have both the Kindle and hardcover of "The book on pie" as well as "Fearless Baking" and I love them both: the difficulty rating, the make ahead and storage, all of they "why" info! All above to say, I very much enjoyed this article that allows a glimpse of the making of the book. I can only try to imagine what it took to both write and photograph for the book, but am happy to have a little peek. Erin, I love your passion for all that you do including for Brimley, your family and your crew. It comes across in everything. I'd also like to say that your ability to speak in videos and explain things is so very excellent. I know there are bloopers and retakes, but good golly ... you are just great!! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family and my Emmett (dog) and Auggie (cat) say woof and meow to Brimley.”
— Liz S.
Comment

The answer came, inadvertently, from my Instagram followers, who regularly ask me to develop a specific pie—a pie they’ve never seen but dreamed about, or a recreation of a favorite they faintly remember, or a flavor they adore but have never seen pie-ified. I love to come up with different pies for different seasons and occasions, with whatever ingredients I can get my hands on.

So that’s what I could offer: a user-friendly handbook to making great pie, with the foundational knowledge to confidently create your own dream pie. I headed into the kitchen with my computer and rolling pin in hand, and got to work.

Photo by Nico Schinco

Meet the Team

In order to do this effectively, I was going to need a lot of pictures. Enter: the incredible Mark Weinberg, a photographer I first in the Food52 office where we were shooting—you guessed it—pie. We’ve baked up more than a few drool-worthy pie photos together since, and have bonded over our shared love of things wrapped in flaky crust. I was so excited when he agreed to photograph this book.

Also on deck: my longtime assistant, ultimate right hand gal, and valedictorian of #flakyAF Pie School, Katie Wayne. Katie assisted with everything from recipe testing, to editing, to food styling. She also generously donated her fabulous hand modeling skills to several lucky shots.

The photos you’ll see in this article are thanks to my colleague and friend Nico Schinco, who generously agreed to shoot behind-the-scenes photos of our team working. I knew there was going to be a ton of incredible stuff going on, and I knew Nico could beautifully capture some of those moments we were too busy to see.

On the photoshoot, I also had help from candy maker (and my best friend from pastry school) Evan Coben, my baker-blogging friend Erin Clarkson, as well as baker Jase Kingsland Shim, and friend, Food52 contributor, (and fellow CIA alum!) Shilpa Uskokovic.

Read: No one achieves anything—especially giant pie projects—alone!

Photo by Nico Schinco

Plan Ahead

Once all the contractual logistics were squared away (we planned to shoot in my house, where I’m lucky enough to have two ovens, though they are separated by a very steep set of stairs), it was time for months and months and months of writing, testing, tweaking, and more writing.

There are several parts of the cookbook process that are so intense and difficult and stressful, you wonder why you ever signed on to write one. The first stage of panic starts with a never-ending to-do list: testing and retesting (and the piles of dishes that ensue); tweaking the table of contents to ensure variety of flavors, shapes, and seasons; and finding the right way to word the methods and techniques, so that readers feel like I’m standing next to them in the kitchen when they bake... My generally full but balanced life became equally divided between my computer screen and the corner of my kitchen near the oven.

The days became especially long as we neared the first days of the photoshoot. I’ve planned dozens of photoshoots, so I’ve got a system. I originally allotted three days for planning all the moving pieces, things like: which pies go in which crusts, whether some pies were photographed together, which pie plates we should use for each image, and so on. I collected reference images and kept copious notes. Both because I’m a visual person and because I was increasingly sleep-deprived, it helped keep things on a real-life Pinterest board. What I’d intended to take three days actually took 10 as I tried to answer every question that might arise and make incredibly long grocery lists with extraordinarily high quantities of butter (even for me).

Photoshoots are always a ton of work, but if you’re organized, you can also have fun. You can focus on creating. You can enjoy the process of production instead of feeling like you’re treading water. When a shoot is going well, there’s a palpable vibe, a buzz. You’re all in a groove. I knew that the project I was laying out was particularly ambitious—we were planning to make more than 200 pies—so I wanted to prep as much as possible, to make room to create. I really wanted to enjoy it.

Photo by Nico Schinco

Say Pie!

The planning was worth it. Each shoot day, I removed the carefully clipped packet of inspo photos and recipe notes off the wall, and brought it to the kitchen for our pie preparation and image styling. We photographed a combination of process images (like how to prepare your crust’s edges for the prettiest crimps), beauty shots (perfect, beautiful slices of final pies and slices), and other book elements (like chapter openers).

There were images that weren’t required, but make the book extra special, like the “Let’s Bake a Pie” shot next to the introduction. I was beyond excited by the quantity of pies we were producing, and wanted to make sure we captured as many shots as we could.

I’d had an idea to create a stop-motion video that showcased the variety of pies it was possible to create with this book. Mark graciously set up a second camera and set, where we’d photograph every single pie again.

This is not to say there weren’t disasters. Like day two when I realized, red-faced, it was 4 p.m., I’d never offered anyone lunch, and I ordered a few much-needed pizzas.

Photo by Nico Schinco

But aside from a few blips, it was a special time. I was exhausted but exhilarated, surrounded by a wonderful crew I loved. We ate pies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When something excited a member of our crew, they’d shout “Take it to the stairs!” so they could photograph it in natural light. My friend Chris saved the day one afternoon when he went for an emergency cotton candy run (words I never thought I’d say in the same sentence).

And I made some memories I didn’t realize would become so special in the dinner party–less, pandemically challenged year to follow. Like the especially long shoot when we made 23 pies, and I invited over a group of neighbors to join the crew and I for an evening feast (with a plentiful side of bubbly).

It’s days like that when I remember exactly why I wanted to write this book. I wanted to chronicle everything I’ve learned about pie since that first one I made with Grandma Jeanne over 20 years ago. I wanted to share my methods and techniques with others, so they could fall in love with the process the way I did. I wanted to show the decorative possibilities with pie are as limitless as they are with cakes or cookies. I wanted to dream up fun, creative flavor combinations that challenge readers to think outside the box.

To say this book was a labor of love just isn’t enough, but I’ll say it anyway. I love pie. And I hope The Book on Pie makes others love it too.


Recipes From 'The Book on Pie'

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, The Book on Pie, is out on November 10th, 2020.

1 Comment

Liz S. November 23, 2020
I am an Erin Jeanne McDowell super fan :) !! Despite a good 45 years of baking and feeling like I knew what I was doing, I have learned so much: Biscuits, puff/rough puff, pie crust ... I am truly "baking it up a notch" ... actually several notches. I have both the Kindle and hardcover of "The book on pie" as well as "Fearless Baking" and I love them both: the difficulty rating, the make ahead and storage, all of they "why" info!

All above to say, I very much enjoyed this article that allows a glimpse of the making of the book. I can only try to imagine what it took to both write and photograph for the book, but am happy to have a little peek.

Erin, I love your passion for all that you do including for Brimley, your family and your crew. It comes across in everything. I'd also like to say that your ability to speak in videos and explain things is so very excellent. I know there are bloopers and retakes, but good golly ... you are just great!!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family and my Emmett (dog) and Auggie (cat) say woof and meow to Brimley.