I have plenty of talents and I'm really not a bad cook so I'm not sure why I've never mastered pie baking. Maybe I gave up too easily when my pies ended up with the lattice crust floating like flotsam on a soupy apple sea. For years, I did everyone a favor by ordering pies from a local bakery at Thanksgiving until my younger son fortuitously married The Crust Whisperer.
My daughter-in-law Meg is a first-rate cook and baker--even cooks on the Streamy-winning YouTube channel WhatsupsMoms--and her pies have become an essential part of our holiday.
I was delighted when Meg offered to teach me her family's treasured pie recipes. I sat in the kitchen and took copious notes as she made the crusts and fillings. She told me which apples to use and crust tips like making sure the Crisco and the butter were really cold.
The next year, I was deeply honored when she asked if I could make the pies from her recipes since she was busy with her newborn. I intended to do her proud. Just as it annoys me beyond belief if an editor mangles text that's under my by-line, I knew that these pies represented her family. If your name is associated with it, you want--nay, demand--that it live up to your standards.
In retrospect, having my older son Rory help me was not the best idea. While successful in his social work career, Rory has never liked math, which could be problematical in cooking. It doesn't help that he tends to confuse the one-cup measure for the two-cup measure since they're both, after all, glass containers and end in "cup."
I still can't figure out what happened with the crusts. We genuinely tried. Rory and I chilled our dough thoroughly, as instructed, before rolling it out. We dusted the counter top and the rolling pin liberally with flour. But the crusts would disintegrate when we tried to pick them up, and after repeated re-roll-out attempts--each one less successful than the last--they ultimately Super-Glued themselves to the counter surface. In desperation, we finally just scraped dough bloblets up with a spatula and pressed them into the pie pan in a kind of pathetic patchwork pattern. Then we added the apples and the crumb topping which Rory had made.
The pumpkin pie, meanwhile, listed to starboard so that when we took it out of the oven, the filling was spilling out one side. This remains an Unexplained Culinary Mystery.
We couldn't help noticing that there was nothing about our pies that looked anything like her beautiful Sunset Magazinesque versions, including and especially the crumb topping which seemed worrisomely heavy on the flour. Not to place blame anywhere, especially considering all my own previous failures with pies, but I do think that cup thing was a factor.
When Meg arrived on Thanksgiving morning and surveyed our work, she heroically disguised her dismay. That her name--nay, her family's name--should be associated with these fruity fiascoes must have cut her to the quick. But in her inimitable fashion, she thanked us for baking, even gamely downed a piecelet of each that night. My personal theory is that after dinner, she got in her car, rolled up the windows, and screamed for 40 miles.
There hasn't been any mention of my making the pies since then, even though she's now encumbered with three tiny kids. I'm sure she still wrings her hands at the memory and wonders, how can people not follow simple instructions? Rather than unleash the Crust Killer and the Math Mangler on her recipes again, I think she'd make those pies with the kids strapped to her body, and peel the apples with her teeth. Even I would have to agree: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
Just for the record, I got a set of dry measuring cups for Christmas that year.