Cookbook review by Bridget O’Donnell, Librarian
When I was growing up, every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas, my Mother made desserts for our house, extended family dinners, the neighbors and my Father’s Holiday potlucks at work. Every year, her pies and plates of assorted cookies were requested and eagerly expected (though most of the cookies never made it past the cooling racks, thanks to my Father). Because our kitchen was the size of a postage stamp, as my Mother used to say, I didn’t realize how efficient this made her system: once one dessert or tray was in the oven, she’d clean up, delegate various tasks to her children patiently waiting to taste the final product, and begin the next dessert. I helped dry dishes, stir cookie dough, peel [not core or slice] apples, and, using two butter knives, cut fat into dry ingredients for pie dough. When I wasn’t focusing on the task I’d been given, I watched my Mother drop dough onto sheet pans or clear off the counter, making enough space to roll out what would become cookies decorated for the corresponding holiday or pie crusts and decorative cutouts. Occasionally, I’d see her roll dough back into a ball and refrigerate it, only to repeat the whole process until she considered it ‘perfect or good enough’ for pie. It wasn’t until just recently that I understood why.
Shortly after I moved out of my parent’s house, I made my first [apple] pie with little to no understanding of the mechanics or chemistry really required in baking. I’m happy to report that it was pretty convincing – aside from resembling a tall hillside that sloped from one edge of the Pyrex dish to the other. My Father, always encouraging when I tried new recipes – especially dessert – assured me it tasted good (which probably won him a second or third [large] piece to take home but I don’t really remember, it was a LONG time ago).
Jump ahead to 2020 when there wasn’t much to do because of Covid-19 but cook/bake or convince my boyfriend one Fall morning that we should drive to Golden Harvest Farms, an orchard in Valatie, New York, to try the [apple] cider donuts rated #4 the following month in Hudson Valley Magazine. We sat at a table outside with our jackets zipped up and ate donuts, sampled artisanal beverages, and, before leaving, walked through their beautiful indoor/outdoor market and bought more apples than two people could eat, though we wouldn’t realize this until we got home. Fortunately, at about the same time, pies were becoming more mainstream and looked like they might be the next Covid-baking-craze (the first being traditional Sour Dough that even Rocket Scientists said they found difficult to master). This was the solution to our problem…with decades between them, baking my second apple pie (ever) felt a lot like a first. And don’t get me wrong, the pie was good [minus all the cuts on my fingers and hands from peeling and coring apples]. I received compliments and encouragement from everyone who had a piece or listened to me recount the event, but I think my pie probably turned out as well as it did because of the phenomenon known as “beginners luck.”
With that experience still fresh in my mind, I decided to borrow some cookbooks from (the 66 public libraries in) the Mid-Hudson Library System to do a little research. It wasn’t surprising that I learned something from each cookbook I checked out (References listed below), but I related most to Kate McDermott’s 2020 publication Pie Camp: the Skills You Need to Make Any Pie You Want. Maybe because it was one of the last books in my research, I noticed and appreciated how utilitarian this cookbook was (even more than McDermott’s Art of Pie). In my opinion, Pie Camp provides a good overview with simple instructional pictures for a neophyte like myself. It includes variations on the ‘traditional’ apple pie for the practical novice, pies for those with dietary restrictions (i.e. vegan and gluten free) and more advanced recipes for artisan bakers featuring McDermott’s interpretations of sweet and savory doughs made using vinegar, vodka, buttermilk, and other ingredients found in many cupboards and pantries. Similar to other pie cookbooks, Pie Camp also showcases recipes creatively adapted to fit a variety of pie dishes and acknowledge a group-appetite or individual serving-size (like the skillet, casserole dish, mini pie pans, and mason jar lids) as well as charts that facilitate skimming and comparing ingredients. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in learning to bake a pie.
- Art of the pie: a practical guide to homemade crusts, fillings, and life / Kate McDermott. 2016 (9781581573275)
- The perfect pie: your ultimate guide to classic and modern pies, tarts, galettes, and more/ America’s Test Kitchen. 2019 (9781945256912)
- Pie academy: master the perfect crust and 255 amazing fillings, with fruits, nuts, creams, custards, ice cream, and more: expert techniques for making fabulous pies from scratch / Ken Haedrich. 2020 (9781635861112)
- Pie style: stunning designs and flavorful fillings you can make at home / Helen Nugent, founder of Pie-Eyed Girl. 2020 (9781645670773)
- Pieometry: modern tart art and pie design for the eye and the palate / Lauren Ko. 2020 (9780062911223)
- The book on pie: everything you need to know to bake perfect pies / Erin Jeanne McDowell. 2020 (9780358229285)
- Pie camp: the skills you need to make any pie you want / Kate McDermott. 2020 (9781682684139)