Granted, the kick-off was more happy hour than pie prep. Fueled by flutes of bubbly and chilled stems of Chenin-something, the bakers were in fine spirits. Literally. In the span of ninety minutes, we had quite a bit of ground to cover. As stipulated in the invite, participants were required to BYOR, Bring Your Own Rolling Pin. The array of pins was dizzying; Gretchen brandishing a compact cherry red pin, Kelly a cool-to-the-touch marble version. Jeryl was armed with rolling pin and per my request, an assortment of mixing bowls. Thank you, Jeryl. Theresa arrived with a long-lost rolling pin and her strawberry slicing skills. Accompanying Theresa was her handsome son Andrew who turned out to be quite a fine pie baker.
The pie makers cubed and pinched butter into flour, adding just enough ice water to the mix. Armed with their very own pie pastry, they rolled bottom shells and latticed top crusts. The crowd was enthusiastic, just a touch unruly, often times hilarious and for the most part, dedicated to the task. Our host Bud, pampered us with a kitchen as fully stocked as a Williams-Sonoma, down to the freshly ground cardamom and the coarse-grained sugar crystals. At one point, more than just the two commercial ovens were heating up. (Sorry about the fractured wine glass, Bud.) It was indeed tepid around the workspace prompting Julia to eloquently coin the phrase Bikram Baking. She wasn’t kidding- sprung from the confines of my traditional bakery bandana, my curls were working overtime. By sheer determination alone, I steered the pie ship towards bowls of raspberries, blueberries, blush pink rhubarb and fragrant strawberries. The students were chatty and far from shy when it came to filling their pie shells. Bryan was the pie trendsetter, suggesting the teaming of sweet fruit with a hint of savory. Sugar was flying and microplanes were zesting lemons and oranges like nobody’s business. At 8:30 on the dot, the pies entered the ovens. Don’t forget Bud; start the pies on the bottom rack.
Quite unexpectedly, one of the loveliest moments of the evening occurred with the late arrival of two young pie enthusiasts, Jonathan and Simon. Gifted with what I like to call ‘bakers hands,’ the ginger-haired boys maneuvered their rolling pins with ease. Tossing purple berries with a bit of sugar, they filled their pie shells high and wove the lattice tops with great pride. If they ever wish to quit their day jobs as students, I know of a bakery in the Garden State that would welcome them in an instant.
The worst of pies scenario resulted from the overfilling of certain pie shells. Call it what you will, but Pie-nami seems to cover it nicely. Blissfully, Bud’s ovens escaped unscathed. While we waited for the well-behaved pies to bubble up through their perfectly woven lattice tops, we did what one does at a pie social. We ate pie.
Slices of early season peach teamed with vanilla ice cream and caramel bourbon sauce. Wedges of sweet and tart strawberry rhubarb under a thick layer of toasty oatmeal crumble. And the crowd favorite- Best of Philly Key Lime Pie. Who would have thought that a Slice of Heaven recipe from the city of brotherly love would dazzle the west coasters.
As the clock neared ten, rolling pins reunited with bakers. The socialites gathered up their personal pies, screaming hot out of the oven. Steam clouded the cellophane windows of bakery boxes, smudged by fingers sticky with fruit. Baking with friends is a lot like baking with butter. It’s simply better.