Tag Archives: pie

A pie for imperfectionists


Despite that recipe you’ve found for “the perfect pie,” it will probably be imperfect — and that’s just the way it should be!

“PIE SHOULDN’T BE PERFECT,” declared an article on making fruit pie that I’d saved from a Bon Appetit magazine.

Aviva and I could  not have agreed more. While we learned a few things from the article (the butter in the crust should be in unevenly sized pieces) wondered over some pieces of advice (a pie should bake for an hour and a half at 350 degrees?) and  rejected others (really, the crust does not need that much butter!), the philosophy expressed in that simple line is what really struck home.

Aviva making pie

Aviva visits the Toby Kitchen for a pie-making session!


WE ARE NOT perfectionists, we realized  — and glad of it.

Being an imperfectionist (my new word) means you are content with “good enough,” and not devastated by minor failures in the kitchen or other areas of life.

The Bon Appetit article detailed a finished pie’s characteristics: “The filling will spill out, bits of crust will collapse, and it’s only natural for the fruit to shrink as it bakes, leaving a little gap beneath the top crust.”

And these “imperfections” not only don’t matter, but actually add to the pleasure of  making and eating pie.

“That’s the trouble with cake,” Aviva noted (she has a strong preference for pie over cake). “It’s too perfect.”


The still-warm pie was too juicy to serve it on the fancy plates I’d set out, so we served it in mismatched bowls, with ice cream melting on top. My twisted-lattice crust had become rather skewed and messy, but that didn’t bother us.


Just as the article had predicted, my pie had not yet set properly when we served it to friends a couple hours after taking it from the oven (the article advised waiting at least four hours, and added that pie was even better the day after it was baked. But warm-from-the-oven pie is sooooo good!)

We carved out some fairly sloppy slices and ladled them into mismatched bowls with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. We used spoons instead of forks.

No one complained. It was a perfectly delicious imperfect pie and we were all happy.


Here’s the updated recipe. And for you fellow rhubarb-lovers, here’s some history and more on the wonderful pie plant.

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Filed under baked goods, dessert, fruit, spring, Uncategorized

Kitchen troubles

sunsetrecipeTHE TROUBLE BEGAN HERE: an attractive photo in a cooking magazine for “pumpkin caramel tart with toasted hazelnut crust.” It was just before Thanksgiving, when I was considering what I could bring for dessert — and it was tempting.

I should have known better. Our Thanksgiving hosts, Nellie and Marc, had said their theme for the food this year was “tried and true.” Which really should be a theme every year for Thanksgiving, in my humble opinion. I mean, so many people look forward to those traditional foods — maybe with a few tweaks here and there —  why disappoint them?

So why couldn’t I just make a good old pumpkin pie — the kind I’d made many times before? But no, lured by the glossy photo and the promise of “ease,” I gave in to temptation.

Two days before Thanksgiving, I made the crust, and it really was pretty easy. So far so good.

My plan was to make the filling and bake the pie the next morning.  I’d just change one or two little things. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to add  a little sweet potato to the pumpkin filling? However, I hadn’t baked the sweet potato quite long enough, and it wouldn’t blend in, even when attacked with the mixer. Since lumpy filling just would not do, I walked to the store to buy another can of pumpkin puree.

The morning was gone by the time I got to the next step, making the caramel sauce. I melted sugar and swirled it in the pan till caramelized, then added the cream. No, not really cream. As I wanted a lactose-intolerant guest to enjoy this pie, I had decided to use coconut milk. But I had only light coconut milk, and I wasn’t sure this was going to work as well as cream. Oh well, I was NOT going to go back to the store. I mixed up the ingredients and put it in the oven.

The recipe said that the filling would be firm on the sides and slightly jiggly in the middle after 30 to 35 minutes. I checked after 30 minutes and panicked. It was totally liquid — like pumpkin soup! No way would it be firm in another 5 minutes. I turned the springform pan this way and that, closed the oven door and set the timer for 10 minutes. To my amazement, in 10 minutes the filling had actually set, and the tart was ready to come out of the oven.


But now there was a BIG problem. While some of the muddy-looking filling had slopped over the crust, a large sinkhole had developed — and weirdly, not even in the middle of the pie/tart, but off-center. ( I couldn’t fill the crater with whipped cream, as that would have defeated the no-lactose attempt.)  Meanwhile, I had tried to caramelize some hazelnuts for decoration but this effort failed too, and the nuts ended up crusty with sugar rather than the shiny  caramelized ones of the photo.

IN SHORT, THIS WAS NOT  the pretty pie of the glossy photo! Not at all. I debated starting over and making a regular pumpkin pie but I was thoroughly sick of being in the kitchen at this point. I gave up and went to my yoga class.

The next day — Thanksgiving — I opened the refrigerator and witnessed a semi-miracle. The contents of the pie seemed to have shifted so the sinkhole had diminished. It was now merely a depression. I still didn’t know how it would taste, but the kitchen seemed welcoming again as I cooked another batch of cranberry sauce and blanched some green beans. I nestled the pan into a box for its trip to the Thanksgiving feast.


By the time we got to Thanksgiving dessert, I wasn’t too worried — perhaps an effect of the abundant food and wine. So what if it wasn’t the world’s best or prettiest pie? I’d dressed up the top with candied (not caramelized) hazelnuts  and you could barely see the former sinkhole. What’s more, it tasted pretty darn good, and the slices quickly disappeared off the platter.

But would I make this recipe again? I already knew the answer before I even took one bite. No, no, and no.

I gave the magazine away right after I took the photo for this blog post.  I have learned my lesson. A pumpkin pie would have been just as good (allowing for my usual tweaking and minor experimentation) — and I wouldn’t have had all that stupid agonizing.

So I’ve resolved: from now on, I’m not going to be a sucker for the glossy photos and complicated new recipes– especially on the big occasions, like Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin pie

My new motto: Keep it simple. Keep it classic. Keep enjoying the cooking.

p.s. That filling that I couldn’t use because it seemed lumpy? I used it today in a classic little pumpkin pie that really was easy to make (and the filling wasn’t lumpy after all). The experimental part was a cornmeal crust that I saw on the wonderful pie blog, Nothing in the House. So good!










Filed under baked goods, dessert, fall

Pleasures of summer


Yogurt and granola with freshly picked raspberries

Here are just some of the delights I’ve been enjoying this first week or so of July.

Salmon with lemon slices

Salmon with lemon slices

 Copper River salmon with blackened (caramelized) lemon slices. It’s nice to use a cast iron skillet for this. First, saute one (or two) thinly sliced lemon(s) in a bit of butter or olive oil until soft and starting to blacken; next, sear the salmon filet, then finish cooking in the oven at 300 or 325 degrees until the salmon is tender and flakes easily.


Beans and greens summer salad

The base is cooked or canned white beans. I used cannellini beans that I brined the night before and rinsed before cooking. (This is a great way to cook beans that I learned from Cook’s Illustrated.) Make a dressing of olive oil, plenty of fresh lemon juice (and some zest if you like), a little garlic and some salt. You can basically add any chopped vegetables and herbs you like: for this salad, I used chopped raw spinach, chopped broccoli rabe (cooked crisp-tender), chopped green onions, a little sweet yellow pepper and some minced parsley, mint and dill. A second variation omitted the spinach but had more broccoli rabe and some basil.

Pie cherries from the farmers market

Pie cherries from the farmers market

Pitting pie cherries

Pitting pie cherries

Cherry pie

Cherry pie

I only had enough cherries for a small pie — and I decided to make the top crust only. (We never missed the bottom crust or its calories. And I didn’t have to decide whether to pre-bake it or not.)

You’ll need some nice fresh pie cherries, which are not always easy to find — and some sugar and cornstarch or other thickener for the filling (How much? Epicurious has a good basic recipe and you can adjust it according to how big a pie you’re making, etc.) Also a little lemon juice and zest.

Some people like almond extract in a cherry pie, but I don’t care for almond extract anywhere, so of course it didn’t go in.


Later, that same day

I didn’t hear any complaints.

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Filed under dessert, fruit, summer, supper time, vegetables

By request: the real rhubarb pie

Sometimes you really need the real thing: a buttery crust on the bottom and a lattice top; a filling bursting with rosy red rhubarb and a scent of orange. My readers asked me for the recipe, so here it is.

Pie pastry:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 9 or 10 pieces
  • 3 tablespoons ice water, plus a couple teaspoons of vinegar, combined

Combine flour, salt and sugar. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs of irregular sizes (do this quickly so the butter stays cold. . )

Drizzle the ice water/ vinegar over the flour mixture bit by bit,  just until the dough is moistened and comes together as you knead it in the bowl briefly. It will still seem a little dry. Knead the dough only a few times on a work surface (not too long!), then shape into two discs (one slightly larger than the other).  Wrap them in plastic wrap or put in a covered bowl and refrigerate for an hour.

Rhubarb filling:

  • 5 to 6 cups (more if you want a higher pie — the cooked fruit will shrink down) of  fresh rhubarb, thinly sliced on the diagonal (if your stalks are  wide, cut them vertically before slicing)
  • 1 1/4 to  11/2 cups sugar, plus 1 tablespoon demara or sparkling sugar for the top crust
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small bits
  • 1  teaspoon grated orange peel (best from an organic orange)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons milk
    1. Toss together all of the above filling ingredients together in a bowl, except the milk and 1 tablespoon sugar. Let sit a few minutes and then stir until the sugar and flour coats the rhubarb pieces.
    2. Roll out one of the pieces into the lower crust to fit your pie pan and drape over the edge; then fill with the rhubarb mixture.
    3. Roll out the other ball of pastry into a wide circle the size of the pie pan and cut across into strips of dough to form a lattice crust. After you put the rhubarb filling in the bottom crust, lay the strips of dough one at a time, weaving over and under to make a lattice. If you want to be fancy, twist the dough gently as you go.
    4. Then take leftover dough and strips around the edge and crimp or pinch together into a nice edge.
    5. Brush the top crust and edges with the milk and sprinkle with sugar. Place the pie pan on a cookie sheet lined with foil (to catch any dripping juices). Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 45 to 55 minutes until done — the rhubarb should be soft and bubbly and the crust should be a deep golden brown. Let cool several hours before serving — or alternatively, serve in a bowl.

Serve with a scoop of ice cream or not. De-licious!

I made another one of those pie-top-only (bottomless?) pies, with the full amount of rhubarb filling. My crust was kind of messy and falling apart, but since you have to eat this pie with a spoon (it’s not possible to slice it!) everything was fine….


Filed under baked goods, dessert, fruit, spring, Uncategorized

Apple pie time!

Pie Time! drawing by Aviva Steigmeyer

Pie Time! drawing by Aviva Steigmeyer

I like pies just fine, but let’s face it, they’re full of calories and cholesterol.The best pie crusts, in my estimation, are made with butter (apologies to those who advocate lard — I just can’t go there).  And butter is one of those wonderful foods that’s on my “only in very limited amounts” list.  

One solution would be to make pies but not eat them.But another method, which seems more reasonable to me, is to make (and eat) pies only on special occasions.That’s how I came up with my one-per-season pie calendar.

peshastin pie

I seem to remember that this was an apricot pie I was making, in a fruitpickers' cabin in Peshastin, about 1972. Photo by Rick Steigmeyer.

Every season seems to demand one pie, a kind of homage to the fruit and its harvest time. For me, the lineup goes like this: rhubarb pie in spring, peach pie in summer, apple pie in the fall,  lemon meringue in winter.I know, this doesn’t include Thanksgiving and pumpkin (or sweet potato) pie, so let’s just say that every good plan includes an exception. (My kids also insist that I’m supposed to make chocolate pecan pie  for Thanksgiving, but that’s another story.)

Even though I’ve been making pies for a long time, I still have a lot to learn. So, to make the best possible apple pie, I turned for advice to Pie Queen Reeb Willms.


Reeb Willms is a master pie baker, singer/ guitar-player and gardener

Reeb grew up in Farmer, Washington — which is too small to even show up on a map — in Central Washington. She’s from a family of wheat farmers and she learned to make pies from her mother,  a local pie queen.

She wrote out the recipe and instructions for apple pie, below. Photos of her making pie (rhubarb) are from a “skillshare” workshop that Aviva put on a couple years ago, for people to teach each other their skills.  It was held outdoors at Fairhaven College gardens, and Reeb taught a group of folks how to make pie.


Reeb fit all her pie-making supplies into a small suitcase

Apple Pie Filling:

  • 5-7 large baking apples, cored and thinly sliced
  • Mix together in a small bowl:
  • ½ cup sugar (I like to use course raw sugar)
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Pie Pastry:

  • 2 ½ cups all purpose flour (I like to use whole wheat pastry flour)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
  • 1 ½  teaspoons salt
  • 1 ½ sticks cold salted butter – slice in pats over the dry ingredients
  • fill a mug with ice water

Firstly, the filling.I like to prepare this first so that when I finish the pastry, I can fill the pie shell and pop that pie in the oven. At this point you can start your oven preheating to 425. Thinly and uniformly slice your apples into a large bowl. I don’t mind leaving the peels on, but if you do, just peel ‘em. Pour the lemon juice over the apples. Now add your sugar, flour, cinnamon mixture and stir it in until the apples are coated. Set aside. applesforpieNow, the pastry.I’m going to give a lengthy description that can be skimmed by the seasoned pie baker.

First combine flour, salt, and sugar. Then slice the cold hard butter into the flour mixture. Now, if you have a pastry-cutter, that is good. Use it to cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles a course meal. If you don’t, don’t despair, this can be accomplished nearly as easily by simply getting your hands into that bowl and rubbing the butter into the flour, between your thumbs and fingers, until you achieve a coarse meal.  

You can use a pastry cutter or your fingers to cut the butter into the flour

You can use a pastry cutter or your fingers to cut the butter into the flour

Now, get that glass of iced water, your tablespoon, and a nice big fork. Sprinkle iced water two tablespoons at a time over your flour mixture, stirring and fluffing the water into the flour with your fork each time. You’ll want to stir it well, yet not overwork the dough. Keep adding tablespoons of water and stirring until the dough has reached the right consistency. This will probably happen with 8-10 tbsp water, but maybe more or less. You will be able to tell this in a couple of ways: one, you will notice that most of the dough has begun to cling together in clumps with only a few bits of dry stuff on the bottom of the bowl. Two, you will know it in your gut that your dough is right. You don’t want it to be too wet since then it will be hard to work and less likely to bake off flaky. But obviously, not too dry either since rolling it out would be impossible. reebdough
Next, prepare a surface for rolling. I like to use a pie cloth, liberally floured. This is a cloth I made out a square of white canvas or duck cloth. You may hem the edges or not. The cloth will hold lots of flour in its weave creating a good non-stick surface for rolling out your dough. If you don’t have a pie cloth, don’t despair, just liberally flour a large cutting board or even your countertop. You may need to add flour under the dough as you roll to keep it from sticking.

 Split the pie dough into two balls. Pat the bottom of the bowl with the balls to pick up any leftover dry ingredients. Now set one ball onto the rolling surface and squash it down firmly to form a sort of dough patty. Flour the top liberally and begin rolling, first one way, then the other until you have a nice big circle-ish shape that is about an 1/8 inch thick.

At this point you can center your pie dish upside down right on top of the pie pastry and trim the dough into a circle that is about an inch wider all around from the rim of the pie dish. reebroll
Grab your pie dish, and I know two handy ways to transfer the rolled out dough. One, gently roll the pie pastry onto your rolling pin until the pastry is draped over the rolling pin like a towel over a towel rack. Then in one smooth motion you can lay one edge of the pastry over the dish and unroll it the dough onto the dish. Settle it into place with your hands until it’s centered. 

The other way is to make sure the surface of the pastry is well floured and then just fold the dough in half and then in quarters, pick it up and unfold it into your pie dish. reebrollpin
Now pour your pie filling into the shell. If you want to, lay a few pats of butter on the filling for extra buttery richness. Roll out your second ball of dough in the same manner and transfer it to cover the filling. With a sharp knife, trim the excess, leaving a good inch of pastry all around.

Then the fun part! Use your fingers to gently fold the top and bottom pie pastries together rolling them under as you work your way around the rim of the pie dish. Once you’ve gotten them sealed, you can shape the edge of the crust. I like to pinch the dough between my thumb and forefinger with both hands and gently pull one hand toward my body and one hand away creating that classic pie crust shape. This is hard to describe, but you can just find your own fancy way of finishing the edge so it looks pretty. Then with a sharp knife, carve a design into the top of the pie, a letter, a star, a heart, a bird, whatever your fancy, or just pierce a few slits. Then sprinkle with a little sugar and you’re ready to bake it off!

Bake the pie at 425 for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 350 and bake for 45 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when it’s golden brown and your kitchen smells heavenly. Let it cool for ½ an hour if you can be that patient. Enjoy!


I used Jonathan and Golden apples in my pie filling

I followed Reeb’s recipe nearly exactly (I used unsalted rather than salted butter and a little more cinnamon).   My previous attempts at two-crust apple pies were too skimpy with the dough — Reeb’s recipe makes a generous amount, and it’s easy to work with.  So I had more fun making it — and that’s important.

I sure was pleased with the way my pie turned out.  I think anyone would be thankful to see this pie show up at a Thanksgiving feed!

Note: For those of you with pie problems, now’s the time to write in.  Reeb’s agreed to be a pie doctor to diagnose your problems and provide help. So write ’em here, as well as any other comments….


Filed under baked goods, dessert, fall, fruit, Praise for other cooks, Uncategorized