The very best decision I made when I was young took one phone call to implement.
“Gram,” I said, “Come visit for two weeks. Teach me how to survive on my own.”
She did, and it was a precious time. In my 12th floor apartment, she shared history, life lessons and some of her best recipes. We watched the clouds, which she proclaimed were completely different from the ones in Saskatchewan. She left behind a small photo album—brag book size—filled with recipes for everything we made, each in her handwriting. She was never one to waste paper, and many of the words are squished into borders and corners. It makes for difficult reading sometimes but I don’t care. That little book is one of my most treasured possessions. We made raspberry jelly, sandwich bread, dill pickles and casseroles. Everything, especially her rolled oatmeal cookies, was perfect. Everything that is, except the thing I’d most wanted to learn.
Gram’s pie crust was the worst I’d ever had. That’s saying something, since my own was a lethal weapon. Not only was I convinced I could never make tender pastry, but I also decided I didn’t like pie.
A decade later, my beloved friend Anna encouraged me to try again. She would teach me. At barely five feet tall, Anna was a tiny and delicate version of my Gram, and could be equally ferocious when the moment called for it. I was blessed to share many meals at her home. Her husband had personally built their house, hammering nearly every nail himself. The countertops were sized for her, and I felt as though I were standing on a stepladder every time I filled the sous-chef role. I gained a new understanding of “back-breaking labour”.
We laughed easily as we mixed together shortening and flour, salt and vinegar. She helped me to roll out the dough, which, I recall, came together beautifully for eight double-crust pies. We baked one, froze five, and packaged two for me to take home.
Anna’s husband returned from work to smells of cinnamon and maple syrup.
“Apple pie. I love how she spoils me,” he said. Anna blushed. They were adorable. As he lifted a forkful of pie, his face filled with unabashed delight and I couldn’t help but smile. “It’s perfect,” he said, and then it was my turn to blush. He was right.
Anna’s recipe was brilliant. The result yielded a tender and flaky pie, with a scrumptious filling. Perhaps I liked pie after all.
Anna and I promised we’d bake together again, but we never had a chance to. After her death, on a day when I was especially missing her, I followed her recipe exactly. It didn’t take long before I realized I was not repeating success. My pies, all eight of them, were horrible. Inedible. Ruined.
I hated pie.
Two more decades passed. I was planning a visit with my new friend Nancy, and she suggested making pie to celebrate the occasion (and to delight her husband, of course). As usual, I lamented about the impossibility of making good crust, but Nancy assured me she had the perfect recipe. It had been her godmother’s, and Nancy promised to make it with me when I visited.
We talked about it, but we never did it. The time was filled with laughter, and our conversations were deep and meaningful. As so often happens when best friends get together, time seemed to vanish.
I will confess to one thing. Nancy doesn’t enjoy cooking and baking as much as me, and I began to doubt her pie-making prowess. Even when she assured me she would be making apple pie for Thanksgiving dinner, I was unconvinced. I’ve since learned she is a very good cook. Her self-deprecation had presented an inaccurate picture.
I asked for the recipe, and Nancy e-mailed the details for her godmother’s Never-Fail Pie Crust. This didn’t bode well. In my experience, “never-fail” anything has the same success rate as “one-size-fits-all”.
As I read the recipe an editorial comment in the directions captured my attention. “Blend,” it said, “remembering, as Aunt La used to say to Marijean when she was a child, that it is already dead, so there is no need to kill it. Be gentle.”
There was only one way to find out. The temptation to beat it into submission was strong. I resisted, and I was so afraid of overworking the dough that I barely worked it at all. It was a crumbly mess when I dumped it in three piles on plastic wrap, but I used the wrap to help me coax it together. A little encouragement was all it needed, and then I set my three discs of dough in the refrigerator to rest.
My apprehension turned to delight when I rolled the dough with ease. As I reflected on the process, I realized the critical note from Nancy’s Aunt La—to be gentle with the dough—was exactly the same instruction my Gram had given for her rolled oatmeal cookies. Anna had tried to make me understand as well.
I’ve successfully made pie several times since then. Each time I roll the dough, I marvel at this simple and profound life lesson. It doesn’t just apply to pastry of course. Be gentle—in relationships. Be gentle—with criticism. Be gentle—with mistakes. Be gentle—with ourselves.
And most importantly, be gentle with pie.