A good pie can make you famous.
In life, there are many examples of a single thing that can be either brilliant or horrendous depending on the interpretation. A production of “Hamlet,” for example, or “La Boheme,” can make the audience weep either because they are so moved by the beauty of the performance or because they so desperately want to exit the theater. Champagne has an enormous range, as does the game of baseball, but for me, nothing so personifies the arc from ecstasy to brutal disappointment quite like pie.
I was well into my thirties before I understood pie. I had thought of it as a sad, flat dessert that took up residence in the harshly lit glass cases of all-night diners. I thought of pie as a victim, the soggy under crust, the gelatinous matter in which a few mock-cherries were held, suspended. It was a good idea but inevitably a tragic execution. If it was pie that was offered, I declined.
But then I became very serious about baking cakes. After I felt I had mastered Rose Levy Beranbaum’s book The Cake Bible, I decided to read her Pie and Pastry Bible, in the way I would always read the next volume by a favorite author. It was then that I realized if I wanted to have a better relationship to pies, I had to take responsibility.
A pie, I came to learn, was an art form. The crust that has become the foundation for my personal repertoire is Beranbaum’s Flaky Cream Cheese Crust. There is no way around it: it takes two days to make. To say that it is a lot of trouble does not begin to cover it. To say that it will alter any feelings you have for pies is guaranteed. I wait for summer now, anxious to slip the things I love into crust: peaches and blueberries (sometimes together, sometimes separately), the brilliant rhubarb of spring, tart cherries that make me grateful for that nifty cherry-pitter I bought at Williams-Sonoma two summers ago. What I have discovered is that while people love a good cake, a good cake is easy to come by. A good pie is something that most people long ago assigned to urban legend. You will discover it is still possible to amaze your friends. A good pie can make you famous.
Novelist—and, we now know, pastry chef—Ann Patchett’s most recent book, Bel Canto, won the PEN/Faulkner Prize and Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction.