Monday, July 19, 2010

Me Oh My

There are two kinds of people in the world: cake people and pie people. Guess which one I am.

I'm a little surprised that I haven't tackled this particular 2KoP dichotomy before, but I'm grateful to Lisa Romeo's Summer Writing Prompt project for reminding me of it. A bit of research shows that both cakes and pies have long, venerable histories dating back to the ancient Egyptians, who are believed to be the world's first bakers.

Cake is fine. It has it's place. Much as I love it, a traditional wedding pie would be a hard to pull off, so my husband and I chose carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. (A mutual disdain for butter cream is one of the things that attracted us to each other.)

But pies (I'm talking fruit pies here) are a different sensation all together. Diet wise, cakes and pies weigh in about the same — both running at a not-exactly-healthy 250-300 calories a slice — but fruit pies somehow feel more virtuous. There's a complexity to homemade fruit pies — sweet and a salty, wet and dry, creamy and flaky, all at the same time — that makes each pie a singular experience.

Pies were originally called coffyns, then pyes and finally pies, and the delicious flaky pastry of our modern tarty desserts does not much resemble the typically inedible crusts of their early ancestors. Back then, the baked shells primarily served as cooking and storage vessels for savory meat dishes. I've had a few meat pies in my day, and a fair share of other crusted dishes, like quiche, but my true love is fruit pies.

Though the romance developed over time, it probably stems back to warm memories I have of baking pies as a child with my grandmother and cousin. My mother's mother was a less-than-stellar chef, coming from the school of cooking where you began making dinner first thing in the morning and boiled or baked the hell out of everything until it was served as barely distinguishable portions of mush and gristle.

That may be a bit harsh, but I will say the woman knew her way around a rolling pin. She made delicious pierogi (Polish dumplings), as well as all kinds of pies. When my cousin Cindy and I, who were the only girls on that side of the family, visited for a day or two, Grandma always made a little extra dough and would give us the trimmings to make tiny tarts. Wrapped in hand-embroidered aprons, we pretended to be grown-up women by pummeling and playing with that dough until it was more like rubbery silly putty than delicate pastry. My Grandma's pies, made from the more tender, earlier version of that self-same dough, were wonderful — delicately lattice woven and flaky on top, moist but not mushy on the bottom.

The first time I attempted to make a pie on my own, it was a complete disaster. Though most pastry dough is made from just a few ingredients (flour, some kind of fat, a little bit of liquid, and sometimes salt and/or sugar), it is a deceptively simple recipe, sensitive to atmospheric conditions and insensitive hands. As the Joy of Cooking explains: "No one recipe can precisely convey a sense for the way the dough should look and feel at all stages nor confer the fabled 'touch'. This comes only with practice."

By the time I was old enough and wise enough to try to codify my grandmother's recipes, it was a little too late. She had never written them down and though she tried to convey that "fabled touch", I just didn't get it. Years later, I let Joy of Cooking take me step-by-step to a decent, if not great pie crust, but it was a lonely learning experience and made me wish I had paid more attention to my grandmother while I had the chance.

About 15 years ago, I decided to forego even birthday cakes in favor of pie. Every year since, I have asked for a homemade peach or sour cherry birthday pie. This is a tricky request, since my late September birthday falls just beyond Midwest cherry and peach seasons.

One year, we planned a neighborhood progressive dinner that just happened to fall on my birthday. In a case of pure serendipity, our neighbor Al, who was in charge of dessert, had baked a peach and blueberry pie. I was sure my husband had tipped him off, but he assured me he had not (and he's not one to miss such a ripe opportunity for praise).

Then, one day in 2008, my friend Cindy Fey posted some juicy pictures of pies she had baked. She was a new friend at the time, and when I left a comment about my unabashed love of pie and dropped a few not-so-subtle hints, she commented back that she would bake me a birthday pie. Sure enough, in September of '09, she produced my first-ever baked-just-for-me homemade birthday peach pie. Never has a birthday cake tasted so wonderful as did this pie, dripping with the full goodness of summer and sweetness of friendship baked right in.

I tried to include a clip here of Andie MacDowell singing "The Pie Song" from the 1996 movie Michael, but no luck, so you'll have to settle for the transcribed lyrics, written by Roy Blount, Jr. Maybe this is the theme song for which I've been searching.

Pie, Pie
Me oh my
Nothing tastes sweet, wet, salty and dry
all at once, oh well, it's pie
Minced an' Wet Bottom!
Come to your place everyday if you've got 'em
Me oh my
I love pie!

So what say you? Is it cake or pie that tickles your dessert fancy? Just click here to let us know.

P.S. Don't forget to check out the launch of The Chicago Moms. It's official as of today.

Photo credit: Peach & Blackberry pie by Tamara Manning via a Creative Commons license.


Carolyn Brandt Broughton said...

Over the past couple of years, pies have become the new family tradition for birthdays in our house. I wish I could say our birthday pies were homemade, but I don't know that I could do top-requested 'French Silk' justice.

Unknown said...

I Love the craziness of Roy Blount, Jr.! And like you, I LOVE fruit pies, but have never masters those crusts. I do very well on the fillings though! ;-)

Susan Bearman said...

Carolyn — In case you're inspired, this French Silk recipe looks pretty tasty. I'm going to stick with the fruit.

Ciss — Roy Blount Jr. on Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me can make my whole weekend smile.

Anonymous said...

We love pies over here, any kind. My husband was lucky enough to have his Mom teach him how to make pie dough from scratch. Like you say, you can't get that finesse from a book. Pie has always been a thing between us as a result. On our first vacation together, Martha's Vineyard in the fall, we made pumpkin pies from scratch. Maybe not everyone's idea of a rocking vacation plan, but we bonded over it!
Yours in pie, Marcy Carlson

Susan Bearman said...

Marcy — I think a dinner invitation to you and your family is long overdue. Please ask your DH if he will bring the pie.

Unknown said...

you forgot about us cookie people!

Susan Bearman said...

Ah, Melanie — I'm thinking that a whole other post!

Rebecca Michelle said...

I prefer cake :) No birthday pie for me thanks.

Susan Bearman said...

Rebecca — Cake it is for you and the blond curly one. That's the great thing about birthdays — you get to pick!

Anonymous said...

Why choose? I want some of each! You have stirred a craving for cherry pie, now. Thanks a heap.

Susan Bearman said...

Anonymous — guilty as charged. I'll be doing some traveling over the next few weeks and will be sure to post any great pie discoveries. You're on your own for cake.

Anonymous said...

Love this post! Can you believe that I had a slice of raspberry & peach pie for breakfast this morning with my coffee?! I've never been a big cake person either - our wedding cake had alternating fillings - raspberry and custard. YUM! I just added you to the blog roll today and on my writer's resources links. I really thought I had already done that - sorry to be so remiss! Now that we are done with vacation for a while I'll be able to pull up your blog with a glass of wine each night and get better acquainted. Thanks for connecting!

Murray Abramovitch said...

Cake or pie? Hmmm. Whichever comes with cherries.

Susan Bearman said...

pajama days — thank you kindly for adding me to your blog roll of writer's resources. I'm jealous of your breakfast. There'll be no pie for me for a while. I had a can of slim fast and a three-mile walk.

Murray — nice to hear from you again. Do you have a favorite cherry? Rainier, Bing, sweet, sour? I just learned there are more than 1,000 types of cherries.

Have a sweet summer. Our cherry season has been pretty good so far.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm both kinds of people...but let me give up a big secret here: shortbread crust on pies. You don't have to roll it, and it doesn't matter if you get it a bit too wet. You get all the buttery deliciousness of a regular crust.

Susan Bearman said...

Thanks for the tip, Kelly. It sounds delicious. said...

I am apparently bi. I cannot choose the flaky crust and gooey center of a pie or the crumbling baked batter and sticky sweet icing of cake. Give me both, baby.

Victoria said...

Pie! Pie! Pie! And cobbler and crisps, oh my!

(And a mention of Roy Blount Jr. makes my heart go pitty pat)

J. Lea Lopez said...

I do enjoy both cake and pie (and cookies, and muffins, and generally any baked goods!). For our wedding, my husband and I also disliked traditional wedding cake options, so we had a build-your-own strawberry shortcake bar!

Susan Bearman said...

EVF — Roy Blount Jr. is now a family favorite, as my 12 year old downloaded a bunch of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" pod casts for our big car trip, and RBJ is a frequent panelist.

J. Lea — good thing my husband didn't meet you first, or he'd have married you. Strawberry shortcake is his absolute fave!

Susan Bearman said...

Tracey — bi on the pie. That's pretty funny. Even though I have a big sweet tooth, I'm not a great fan of the baked goods. I like my pies and cobbler, the occasional bread pudding, but my favorites are custards, brulees, ice creams — the really fattening stuff.

silvii said...

I recently had a stab at making Steak and Ale pie, being from the UK I was insistent on using proper ale and not my fella's suggestion of beer - any kind of beer. It turned out very well!

Pie is more my winter staple - shepherds, cottage or any fruit pie.

Cake - anything goes but I'm a sucker for lemon drizzle.

(thanks for visiting my blog by the way!)

Life In A Skillet said...

Hi Susan! What a great post, and timely from my point of view. My 18 year old recently discovered fruit pies and sucked down a big slice of apple pie (from Trader Joes, I'm ashamed to admit) for breakfast.

I grew up learning how to make pie crust from my mom - three big scoopfuls of Crisco, white flour, cold water, and a pastry blender. Yikes! I've never made it, though, as an adult. Crisco scares me :)

I'd probably make a chicken pot pie or something like that, though. I prefer savory to sweet. (Today wrote about a great savory cake recipe I found online.)

Hope your summer has been going swimmingly!

Susan Bearman said...

Silvii — think I'll have to take a stab at Steak and Ale pie. It may take some effort to find Ale around here, but I won't settle for beer. Must it be made with potatoes? I'm allergic to potatoes.

Maggie — Don't be afraid of Crisco. At least your mom didn't use lard. And don't be afraid to admit to Trade Joe pie. (I happen to like the apple pie from Sam's Club, though I'm ashamed to admit I shop there.)

Susan Bearman said...

Hey, pie fans. You must mark your calendars for pi day (the only one that will occur in our lives:

3/14/15 9:26:53

I know it's a long way off, but how could you resist the opportunity to celebrate such a momentous occasion? Now, what kind of pie should we make to celebrate Pi Day?