In 2005 -- long before pies were considered the new cupcakes, or the new anything -- Anne Dimock wrote a book in hopes of bringing them back.
It started as a series of essays in a local Minnesota paper, but it turned out she had much more to say, and that people were listening.
Her story became a eulogy for America's pie-making culture, punctuated with vignettes of disappointing pilgrimages to roadside diners and bakeries. It's also a memoir about growing up in a family who understood each other best through the making of hundreds of pies, and a hopeful handbook for the next generation. You should read it.
"I believe that making pies is a worthy pursuit. It needs to be practiced," Dimock told me over the phone. "There's still no substitute for a homemade pie."
Read the book and Dimock's measures of pie-making valor will inspire you (she grew up in the thick of a pie-making community in New Jersey, where bakers were sized up by how many they could muster in the swampy August heat).
But so will her humility. She sweats just like we do -- even after an approximate 643 pies made in her lifetime, according to trading card stats she lists in the book.
Pie-making is filled with moments of fear among the ones of meditation and pride, no matter if it's your first or your 644th. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.
Having babies is scary, driving a car is scary, quitting your terrible job is scary. But when you get brave, you're the better for it. And here, in maybe the most gratifying outcome of all, you end up with hot homemade pie when you're done. (See our favorite stress-reducing way to roll-out dough here.)
Your pie won't be bad. It just won't. Even if it's a bit misshapen or slumped, the filling too runny or too stiff, the crust too tough or too meek -- if you yourself made it, there's virtually no chance it won't be good. And there is no surer way to get people to look at you differently than to bake them a pie.
After spending her childhood in New Jersey helping her mother make apple pies, Dimock lived in the upper Midwest most of her adult life and found her own calling was to rhubarb. But when she moved to Kauai in 2008, she had to adapt to the climate, the imported flour, and an island landscape devoid of rhubarb. She set about perfecting her mango lilikoi (passion fruit) pie.
In it, there are no strawberries to claim the glory. Rhubarb, that tart vegetable that insists it's a fruit, proves itself deserving of its own platform.
In the wrong hands, the stalks could taste punishingly sour (which is why it's so often stuck with strawberries when they both arrive in the spring). But when Dimock inherited 30 rhubarb plants in her move to Minnesota, she knew she had to figure out how to tame them, and that it needn't involve buying strawberries or adding a cup of sugar to every pie like her mother had.
Dimock's simple filling formula calls for 1/4 cup of sugar and a tablespoon of flour for every cup of sliced rhubarb -- just enough to soften the rhubarb, and give it the proper ooze -- plus cinnamon, an unlikely accent that brings out the rhubarb's fire.
You can, and should, use this filling in any pie crust you like -- but Dimock's recipe for that is a good one too. The dough is so friendly that there's no extra resting time required, and no blind baking.
For any other pastry, she's willing to use a variety of fats -- from cream cheese to beef suet -- but for fruit-filled pies, it must be shortening (though she switched from Crisco to non-hydrogenated brands in recent years). "Maybe it was just a blip in time that's more my American experience -- the way it should taste for me should be vegetable shortening," she explained. "If I make a quiche I'll use butter, because that's what it's supposed to taste like."
You may have your own convictions of what pie is supposed to taste like, but if not, this is an awfully good place to start.
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at[email protected].
Photos by James Ransom
The Genius Desserts cookbook is here! With more than 100 of the most beloved and talked-about desserts of our time (and the hidden gems soon to join their ranks) this book will make you a local legend, and a smarter baker to boot.
I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."