Book Club Pi(e) Day Edition: The Book on Pie

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Let me tell you a story: when I was a kid, my mom would take my sister and I to her hometown so that we could spend the summers with my grandmother and all her extended family. My mom grew up in a charming little village in Ontario cottage country and the summers we spent there are some of the best summers in my memory. Down the road from my grandmother’s house was the two-story, white clapboard house that she grew up in, and it was where her unmarried sisters and brothers continued to live. Each morning my sister and I would walk the few blocks to their house so that we could visit with my great aunts and enjoy some treats. These beautiful souls were of another time. Dressed in handsewn house dresses, they would take a break from their chores so that we could enjoy a sweet treat while we visited.  We all looked forward to this time we spent together, and my favourite part was when my “aunties” would bake us pie. One for each — my sister’s choice was always lemon meringue and mine was raspberry — they were one of the only times we would enjoy (what I thought of as a “real pie”) pies made from scratch. After inheriting my grandmother’s ancient copy of the Purity cookbook, I suspect that it was from this book that she and her sisters learned how to bake. Maybe it’s because of these warm feelings and dear memories that I look forward to Pi(e) Day so much and, for Pi(e) Day 2021, I’ve baked a special pie from Erin Jeanne McDowell‘s The Book on Pie.

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Basic Crumb Crust, p.66/67

Published last fall, The Book on Pie is the book that every baker should have in their cookbook library because McDowell offers all the information you need to know about baking beautiful pies. This book is an essential resource for baking pies and, while I have baked a few pies, before owning McDowell’s book I never feel like they turn out with any sort of consistency. Unlike baking cookies where I know what they’ll be like 100% of the time, baking a pie seems like more of a mystery. And, with so many methods and such a variety of pies, learning how to consistently bake a good pie seems like an insurmountable task — this is where McDowell’s book comes in. She outlines all the essential equipment you’ll need and, then over the next six chapters — Doughs & Crusts, Decor & Toppings, Fruit Pies, Custard Pies, Cream, Chiffon & Cold-Set Pies, and Savory Pies — she explains everything you need to know in order to bake pies. I appreciate all the helpful process pictures for how dough and crust-related techniques are achieved and what the different steps along the process look like. Each recipe gives the level of difficult — which is helpful (in my case) when choosing an appropriate recipe to match my ability-level. McDowell also troubleshoots all the problems you may encounter along the way, what to watch out for, and in some cases how to correct your course.

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Birthday-Cake Pie, p. 219/20; Basic Crumb Crust, p. 66/67; Chocolate Meringue Topping, p. 118

Getting back to Pi(e) Day 2021, I flipped through The Book on Pie and with all the choices, I managed to settle on baking the Birthday-Cake Pie. A delightful pie topped with Chocolate Meringue Topping and sprinkles, this looked like just the pie to celebrate my favourite day! Initially, I was a little nervous because I’ve never made a custard pie before, so I was glad it was paired with a crumb crust that looked simple to make. And it was easy to make — a mixture of vanilla wafer crumbs and butter, this blend is then pressed into a pie dish and parbaked in the oven. As you can see in the photo, the crust looks really good and I was happy to see it hadn’t shrunk when I removed it from the oven (even if it had, McDowell offers tips on how to fix this issue).

Once the crust had cooled, I combined all the ingredients for the filling, folded in the round confetti sprinkles and slid the pie back into the oven. I learned that the trickiest part of baking a custard pie is telling when it’s done — the key question is how much jiggle is ok? The edges should be set, and the centre can offer the tiniest shimmy when you give it a shake. Custard pies will continue to cook as they cool — one reason why you don’t want the pie to over bake. For a first effort, I think I did just fine — even my husband (who’s personal motto is “if it’s not chocolate, then it’s not dessert”) loved it! It could be that the Chocolate Meringue Topping added just enough chocolate flavour for him, but I think it was the creamy texture of the custard that had him hooked.

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Birthday-Cake Pie, p. 219/20; Basic Crumb Crust, p. 66/67; Chocolate Meringue Topping, p. 118

Speaking of the topping, meringue is one of my kitchen nemeses — just another skill I need to spend more time mastering. With the first batch of chocolate meringue, I couldn’t get the meringue to reach the medium-peak stage. And so, when I tried making the topping a second time, I got the meringue to the correct texture but when I started to fold in the cocoa powder, it lost its peaks (I think I should have added the cocoa powder gradually instead of all at one time). I added it to the pie anyways and I also piped some whipped chocolate cream to the top. Since this is a celebration pie, I added more sprinkles too because, as we all know, sprinkles make everything better!

The more time I spend with The Book on Pie, the more recipes I bookmark. Just as there are pies for every baking ability level, there are pies for every/any occasion (the one I can’t seem to get out of my mind is the Roasted Tomato and Gooey Cheese Free-Form Pie — maybe this will be one of my next recipes to bake?). And, what McDowell has shown me is that pies are versatile — homey delights which are great for casual occasions and ones that are more festive and awe-inspiring. With all McDowell’s delicious-sounding recipes and the beautiful photography of Mark Weinberg, I think I’ll have to bake pies a little more often and not wait for March!

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Me and my Aunties, late’80s

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Raincoast Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

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