Sometime during the first year I was married, back in the 1960s, my mom taught me how to make a pie crust. She didn't begin by handing me a recipe to follow, as I expected. Instead, she got out a mixing bowl, some all-purpose flour, salt, shortening, some cold water in a Pyrex measuring cup, a pastry blender, and a fork.
At first I assumed she was going to make the pastry, without a recipe in sight, as I watched. But that's not what she had in mind. I'd be the one to make the pie crust, as she watched, instructing me.
It was a deceptively simple procedure. She had me place a few scoops of flour into the mixing bowl and add a bit of salt. Then she had me spoon a good amount of shortening into the bowl.
The pastry blender was a U-shaped device with maybe five or six rounded wires attached to a wooden handle. The idea was to cut the shortening with it until there were pieces about the size of small peas evenly distributed throughout the flour.
Next, she had me add just enough of the cold water so that as I stirred the mixture gently with the fork, everything began to cling together. When that happened, she had me scoop the dough out of the bowl onto a floured board and gather it together, turning it a few times and gently kneading until it formed a ball.
The process wasn't as magical as it might sound. My mom's running commentary, advice, and direction, along with my constant questions, like "Is this enough? Is that too much? Am I doing this too hard?" was the frame of the lesson. The heart of it was the sensory experience of actually making the pastry myself.
I began to understand that there's a lot more to cooking than following a recipe and hoping for the best. It's a full-participation event where all the senses play a part, and, over time, I learned how each one helps ensure that the results are predictable, consistent, and delicious.
Making that first pie crust showed me the relationship between flour and fat, how to judge the amount of each by sight, and how the two, in ideal proportions, can produce a flaky, melt-in-the-mouth pastry. The salt and water play relatively minor roles, salt for flavor, water simply to hold everything together so it can be rolled out.
At my mom's side, I learned how the dough should look and how it should feel. Even more important, I learned confidence in the only way it can really be learned – by doing, rather than by observing.
I didn't realize then, but later I came to know that what I was learning that afternoon went far beyond how to make pastry for pie. My mom was teaching me how to cook in the broadest sense. She was inviting me to simply go ahead and do it, and by trying and failing along the way, to learn to trust myself.
That first pie crust was OK – not great, but promising. With practice, each one was better than the one before, and, eventually, I didn't even have to think about what I was doing as I made pastry dough for both savory and sweet pies and tarts.
I remembered that long-ago afternoon with Mom recently when I was visiting my sister, Peg, in Wisconsin. We decided to make an apple pie for dessert the day before I was to drive back to New York after Missy, my Welsh Springer Spaniel, and I had spent a week with my mom in St. Paul, Minn.
It was happy culinary collaboration, that pie. We'd bought some McIntosh and Granny Smith apples, three of each as I remember. While Peg peeled and sliced the apples very thinly, I made the pie-crust pastry.
I found a recipe for the filling in one of her cookbooks, a 1969 edition of "Betty Crocker's Cookbook." Although I make a good pie crust, the filling isn't always the greatest. It turns out that I'd chosen the very recipe that Peg uses for her usual apple pie. As we completed our chores, we chatted, barely paying attention to what we were doing.
Our reward was more than either of us expected. Before dinner, I just had to break off a piece of the crust to see how it was. It spoiled the perfection of the presentation, of course, but when it came time for dessert that evening, I volunteered to take the piece with the broken crust.
With the first bite of that pie, I knew it would have won a blue ribbon at any state fair in the country. Not only was it the best apple pie I'd ever had, it was the best pie, period. It was as close to perfection as any pie could be. Peg and her husband, Michael, agreed.
Maybe it was the sweet collaboration between two sisters who love each other, or maybe it was our mother's pie-crust lessons that taught us both to cook from the heart. Perhaps it was Betty's recipe for the filling, put together casually and without fretting too much over the measuring.
Whatever it was, I will carry the memory of that pie as an actress might hold dear a once-in-a-lifetime performance or as any woman might treasure the memory of her first dance.
The next evening in a motel room in Rockford, Ill., I enjoyed another piece of our apple pie. Even a full day later, it was still a blue-ribbon contender.
Blue Ribbon Apple Pie
2 cups unbleached flour
1 scant teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water
6 cups peeled, sliced Granny Smith and McIntosh apples
1/4 cup unbleached flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter
Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
For pastry: In a mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Add shortening. With a pastry blender or two forks, cut shortening into flour evenly, until shortening is the size of small peas.
Mix a couple of tablespoons water into the flour mixture, using a fork. Add additional water, lightly tossing dough until it clings together.
Gather and gently knead dough into a ball; wrap and chill while preparing the filling.
Note: An easy way to measure shortening is to place 1 cup water in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Add shortening until water rises to 2-cup level.
For filling: Place sliced apples in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Sprinkle over apples and toss to combine.
On a liberally floured surface, roll out half of the pastry dough into a round that's an inch or two larger than an inverted 9-inch pie pan.
Fold the dough in half and place folded edge in center of pie pan. Unfold dough and press lightly into pan. Mound apples into the pastry-lined pan. Dot with butter.
Roll out remaining half of dough, as before, and cover apples. Seal edges and flute or pinch. Cut slits in top crust with a small, sharp knife.
Bake 45 to 50 minutes, until crust is brown and juices bubble through slits in crust.
Makes a 9-inch pie.
Filling recipe is adapted from 'Betty Crocker's Cookbook' (1969).