Perils of Holiday Pie Baking: 8th Time’s the Charm

Mom's apple pie

Mom’s apple pie

Growing up in a family of six children, there were two occasions when the apple pie had to be perfect: when we all gathered to eat on Thanksgiving, and then again on Christmas Day.

And you couldn’t fool around with the ingredients on those hallowed family occasions, the pie had to be made with the exact same recipe my mother learned as a young Foreign Service wife more than fifty years ago.

This year, when pie duty fell to me for the first time, I naively thought, What a great opportunity to learn how to make Mom’s apple pie. My two teenage sons love the fruity pastry and here was a chance to learn  the beloved family recipe directly from the source.

Applesauce pie. Not exactly what I was going for.

Applesauce pie. Not exactly what I was going for.

One Saturday morning, my 13-year-old son, who loves to bake, and I drove over to my Mom’s house and got down to business. My son took notes and I took pictures and it turned out to be a great bonding experience for three generations of our family. The pies were delicious, of course, and we devoured them after dinner.

In the run-up to Thanksgiving, I decided a few practice runs were in order—just to make sure the holiday pie would be as good as Mom’s.

I’ve never been interested in baking, but there was something calming and surprisingly satisfying about making my own dough, rolling it out, and assembling the pie. It wasn’t unlike the feeling that comes over me when my writing is going well.

That first trial run, my crust turned out a little hard, but I figured I’d perfect it the next time. And I did, more or less. The second time, the pie crust was pretty good, flaky with just the right crispness, but the apples had turned to applesauce. All of the experts had an opinion: maybe I’d used the wrong kind of apples (I hadn’t), maybe I’d used too few apples (possibly).

The next three tries ended up the same—more applesauce pie. By the fifth try, my failed attempts at apple pie had completely turned the boys off the dessert they’d loved since they were toddlers. But I refused to give up. I’d come home from the day job and roll up my sleeves to roll out some dough. I was determined to perfect that darn apple pie if it was the last thing I did. No flaky, fruity pastry was going to beat me.

In some ways, I thought as I concocted the sixth or seventh pie, the endeavor wasn’t unlike writing a book. You have to constantly tweak the ingredients until you come up with the best possible result.

"The Monster" apple pie

“The Monster” apple pie

Buy an oven thermometer, said my BFF/Beta Reader/Amateur Gourmet Chef, your temperature must be off. It wasn’t, at least not too badly.

Pile on tons of apples, said my sister. That resulted in a pie my BBF called The Monster. As it happens, The Monster turned out OK, but it looked ridiculous and some of the apples were under cooked.

Desperate for a good outcome, I went to Mom’s house on Thanksgiving morning to make the pies under her watchful eye. She used more flour and apples than I did. And the pies, of course, turned out great.

With Thanksgiving done, I now had Christmas to worry about look forward to. After tweaking the recipe the way I’d seen Mom do it at Thanksgiving, my eighth attempt finally, finally yielded decent results. The pie wasn’t perfect, but the crust was fine and the apples weren’t mushy.

So I’m all ready for Christmas Day. Sort of. My sister just texted me that she’d be happy to make the apple pies this holiday. I think I’ll try a one more apple pie test run before I text her back. I’d never turn over the writing of my books to anyone else. But pie is another story…

Happy Holidays everyone!

Love,
Diana

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14 Comments

  1. Love this post, Diana! I often try to make my mom’s recipes and they never turn out just like hers did. I sat with her and took notes when she was still with us, but she never measured anything. It was always a handful of this or a pinch of that. I guess my hand is not equal to hers! Happy holidays!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  December 23, 2014

      Tina – It must be a Mom thing…my mother never measures anything either! My pie will never match hers but I’m just trying to make it palatable!

      Reply
  2. That’s so funny. My mom’s apple pie is amazing (I make an alternative chocolate dessert to try to distract everyone else so I get more pie) and I love when she makes it. I have no idea how to do it, though.

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  December 23, 2014

      Jennifer — It does make me feel better to learn I’m not the only one who has trouble replicating Mom’s apple pie!

      Reply
  3. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  December 23, 2014

    Hi Dora. I love this story. The image of you attacking your flaky goodness until it is perfection made me chuckle. Years ago when I was in college my mom injured her back. She has always been known as the baker in the family, so there was a bit of panic over the pies. That year she sat at the table and instructed me on every pie in her arsenal. I made them all..apple, pumpkin, chocolate, pecan and rhubarb. I also made a cheesecake under her watchful eye. I wish I kept my pie making up though. I do make an apple pie once in a while, and they turn out good, but baking isn’t really my thing. I applaud your determination. Enjoy your pie and holiday this year!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  December 23, 2014

      Hi RoseAnn – That’s a whole lotta pies! Baking is apparently not my thing either…

      Reply
  4. My mom never measures and I get a lot of “Just put in a handful of this, or about a half a cup of that.” Baking is an exact science. You need the right measurements so the chemical reactions all take place correctly. Alton Brown explains all of this really well.

    Good luck. I hope you perfect it because I’d like to try a slice. 🙂

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  December 26, 2014

      Joanna – I’m working on it. If at first you don’t succeed…

      Reply
    • I got a lot of recipes like that, too, Joanna. Over the years I’ve learned to judge what the right quantities are, although I find it easier to make it up for main courses vs baked goods. Glad to know I’m not alone!

      Reply
  5. JB Schroeder

     /  December 24, 2014

    I cannot believe how many pies you did, Diana! Have to admit I probably would have loved the applesauce version: just like Tarte aux pommes–my fav fav fav french pastry! I am requesting the perfected pie at the next femmes retreat though! Just in case you need practice!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  December 26, 2014

      JB- Who knew I was actually making Tarte aux pommes? I feel much better now and will definitely bring apple pie OR Tarte aux pommes to the next retreat!

      Reply
  6. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  December 27, 2014

    Diana, I applaud your persistence! Apple pies can be tough to make. It does all come down to the right apples and the right amount of flour. I’m sure if you haven’t perfected it yet, you will soon! And yes…if not at the retreat, then you will have to bring one to the conference! 😉

    Reply
  7. Diana Quincy

     /  December 27, 2014

    Hi Jaye – It’s a deal. Now the pressure is on to perfect the dang pie before the Femmes are together in one place again!

    Reply
  8. Thanks for sharing your journey to the perfect pie. I’ve had a similar experience with my mom’s biscotti. I had a basic recipe but the amount of flour to be added would vary depending on the size of the eggs. You had to judge by feel, literally, when you rolled out the dough. If you added too much flour, they were hard. Too little flour, and they were soft inside. Baking is a science. I applaud your perseverance. The more you try it, the more you’ll get the hang of it. And you’re right….it’s just like writing!

    Reply

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