Sarah Plumley said I needed an apron before I got started making pies at her bakery on Bridge Road in Charleston.
A fistful of options was presented to me, all of them exceptionally girlie.
Shrugging, I chose the pink one with flowers — when in Rome, I figured.
Then, we began.
My month learning about pies had been off to a rocky start.
Because of delays, I had begun on my own. I picked up a stack of cookbooks, rifled through them desperately and came up with a recipe for blueberry pie. I made a shopping list of ingredients, went to the store (and then went back to the store) and pounded out a lumpy, unlovable dough to make the pie.
Then I chickened out about making it.
“I’ll just wait until I talk to someone who knows what they’re doing,” I said, then wrapped the warty, beige lump in plastic and shoved it in the refrigerator next to a giant jar of pickles.
After all, I had teachers. There was Sarah and Danielle Mallory, the baker for Bluegrass Kitchen and Starlings Coffee & Provisions.
I met with Sarah first to make an apple pie.
Apple pie, Sarah explained, could be made year-round. She acknowledged winter apples aren’t as flavorful as what you’ll find later in the year, but you can still get live apples, even if they come from South America, a greenhouse in the center of the earth, Mars or wherever.
Sarah prefers Ambrosia apples.
“They’re sweet, crisp and have a pretty good flavor,” she said and handed a slice for me to taste.
Not bad, I thought.
I’m generally more of a Pink Lady or Jazz apple fan, which are crisp, sweet and cheap.
We sliced apples and then mixed dough to make five pies.
Sarah told me not to get stressed about making pies.
“You don’t have to be absolutely perfect with everything to turn out a good pie,” she said, and then added that people tend to be pretty forgiving.
“It’s just pie,” Sarah said.
I wasn’t so sure about that. I’d had crusts so hard they had to be chiseled out of an iron skillet using a hammer.
She laughed. My pie problems could be a dozen different things, including overmixing, adding too little water or even just using the wrong ingredients.
The life of pie
Sarah said always start with good ingredients — like good, unsalted butter — and to avoid Hudson Cream flour.
“I always have trouble with it.”
Sarah also doesn’t believe in shortening. During that year I spent as a vegan, she told me she’d almost made a pie for me.
“But I just couldn’t bring myself to use Crisco,” she said.
When cutting the butter into the mix of flour and salt, it is important to keep the butter cold. The butter should form little pellets in the dough but not entirely blend in.
Getting the right amount of water is important, too. Too much water makes for soggy dough; too little creates a crumbly grit reminiscent of cheap concrete. The water also needs to be cold.
The crust I had made was barely any of that, I told Sarah.
“It was half butter and half vegetable shortening.”
The butter was regular, salted butter and I’d used Hudson Cream flour. It’s my go-to for biscuits and pancakes.
“How’d you cut in the butter?” Sarah asked.
“I did it by hand,” I said.
The cookbook said so.
Sarah used a food processor, which was faster, was more reliable and saved her forearms from cramping.
Her dough was smooth, firm and full of tiny butter pellets embedded in the dough.
My dough was cracked and crumbly, with stray hunks of marble-sized butter or shortening poking out.
Because the dough Sarah and I made needed to “rest” to give the glutens time to relax, making the dough easier to roll, we used dough she’d prepared earlier.
We rolled the new dough out so it would hang a little over the edge of a 9-inch pie pan.
“It’s going to shrink,” Sarah promised. “You need the extra.”
After the dough was rolled out, we moved it into a pie pan and centered it. Sarah had me press the dough into the crease at the bottom of the pan, which would help the dough hold its shape.
Then we brushed the dough at the bottom of the pan with an egg wash, which Sarah said would create a thin barrier between the filling and the dough.
“It helps keep the dough crisp, not soggy,” she said. “It’s really good for fruit pies and pumpkin — fillings that have a lot of water.”
We also added the egg wash to the top edges of the pie crust, which would act as a glue to hold the top and bottom crusts together.
Then she showed me how to make a lattice from the dough, using a rolling pin and a pie cutter.
“You could use a pizza cutter, if you want,” Sarah said. “I just like the edges on this one.”
Adding lattice to the top of the pie was easier than I thought. You lay about half of the strips across the top of the pie and then you weave the remaining strips across the first set of strips by lifting the alternating pieces of dough.
“You just need an odd number,” Sarah said. “Like five down and four across.”
Finally, we pinched the dough around the edge of the pie pan, brushed egg onto the exposed dough and then scattered some crystallized sugar on the top to add a sweet crunch.
I took two pies home to bake as homework, hoping they’d give me more confidence in making my own pie.
Unsurprisingly, Sarah’s pies turned out perfectly. They were easily the prettiest pies I’d ever had anything to do with, but I still held off from testing my misshapen pie crust.
Getting a second opinion
Would Danielle at Starlings do anything differently?
It turned out that yes, she would.
First, she doesn’t have a problem with Hudson Cream flour. Starlings, Danielle said, uses eight different kinds of flour for their various baked goods, but she likes Hudson Cream.
It was what her father had always used in his pies.
“Just don’t use the self-rising,” she said. “He grabbed that once by accident for a pie and ended up with a fruit covered biscuit.”
Danielle isn’t as averse to using salted butter, either. She said she uses salted butter at home sometimes, if that’s what she happens to have, and it is usually fine.
But Danielle and Sarah agree more than they disagree.
Danielle doesn’t like vegetable shortening, either.
“It doesn’t belong in nature,” she said. “It’s not really meant to be consumed by living things.”
Like Sarah’s Bakery, Starlings uses an all-butter crust, which Danielle says makes a reliably tasty and flaky crust and is also very flexible.
“You can turn it savory just by throwing in some herbs into the dough, or you can make it sweet with a little more sugar,” Danielle said.
Danielle is a little more serious about keeping her dough cold. She wears latex gloves while shaping her dough.
“I’m warm-natured,” Danielle said. “The gloves help keep my hot hands from melting the butter.”
She also told me to take it easy with the rolling pin.
“A lot of people when they’re first starting out will really lean on that rolling pin when they’re rolling the dough out,” she said. “You really don’t need to, just keep a loose grip and move smoothly.”
Danielle and I made a cherry berry pie with a rustic crust — mostly, I watched. She rolled the dough out to nearly double the size of the pie pan, placed the crust in the pan, filled it and then began neatly folding the remaining dough over.
It didn’t entirely cover the filling, but it wasn’t supposed to. Some sort of hole or holes are needed to allow the filling to vent off heat and moisture as it bakes. This was the functional purpose of the lattice crust I’d made with Sarah.
Danielle said, “You could just cover the pie, but you don’t have to just stab holes in the top. You can cut little stars or shapes. It’s really nothing to do that but adds a little character to what you do.”
It was a beautiful pie.
Danielle told me I just needed practice to get good at making pies.
The moment of truth
At home, I mixed my blueberry filling and rolled out the dough that had been sitting in the fridge for three days. I ignored the lumps and figured if the dough disintegrated or caught fire, it was all a learning experience.
I could try again, but I used tips from Sarah and Danielle with the recipe.
As Sarah did with her apple pie, I brushed an egg wash on the unbaked crust before I added the filling. Then, when I attached the top crust, I punched holes in the dough, instead of lazily just making a slit or two.
I brushed the top layer with egg, put the pie in the oven and crossed my fingers.
What came out was utterly beginner’s luck.