I’ve never been much of a baker, preferring to spend time cooking, or even more preferably, eating. But a stray turn down the baking aisle, along with a sighting of pre-made pie crusts, inspired me to give pie-making a go.
I knew pre-made pie crusts existed, but on the rare occasions when my wife makes a pie, she takes pride in doing it the hard way—mixing dough, or crushing graham crackers with a rolling pin. Luckily, I’m not so beholden to doing things the way of the Amish, the old country, or the Food Network. Similarly, canned pie fillings exist, and I felt no need to pick my own apples, peel them, and slice them in order to make an apple pie.
A quick calculation convinced me that these shortcuts would get me 90% of the benefits of pie with only 10% of the effort, a golden ratio that’s rarely encountered, but one I would gladly apply to other aspects of my life, if possible.
As for a top cover-crust, a scan of “simple” pie recipes failed to turn up anything that qualified, to my mind, as simple enough. Sensing a potentially dramatic shift in the 90/10 ratio, I decided that a top was showy, superfluous, and just too much work.
Once home, I unwrapped the pie crust, then opened a can of blueberry filling and unceremoniously dumped it in. The whole foil-plated mess went into a 400 degree oven, but with no eggs or other ingredients that needed to be cooked, even this seemed a frivolous and unnecessary formality.
The final result wasn’t much for presentation, but it tasted good, and—yes, I know you saw this coming—making it was as easy as pie. There’s a reason the saying isn’t “easy as cake”—a “piece of cake” implies the consumption of an already-baked, sliced cake, a process both unchallenging and delicious; one doesn’t bake a piece of cake. But baking a cake, even with a boxed mix, involves complicated stuff like cracking eggs, measuring fractions, and stirring. What am I, a food Einstein? No thanks. If, however, one intends to walk, or dance, while holding a dessert, cake might work best—see the term “cake walk,” meaning “done with ease”… as in, “Making that pie was a real cake walk.”
In the days that followed, I breezed through similar, can-opener friendly recipes of my own making. Lidless apple, cherry and blueberry pies, and my favorite, banana cream pie. The latter involved no whipping of cream or beating of egg yolks—nothing so violent, and nothing that would violate the 90/10 rule. My recipe used two packages of Jell-O Instant Banana Cream Pudding, a pre-made pie crust, and two sliced up bananas for appearance (and a token attempt at nutrition).
I’m sure my family saw danger signs; when I get excited—one might say pie-eyed—about a type of food, I tend to serve it ad nauseum—that is, until they are literally sick of it. But this time, they kept their pie holes shut, since they were getting a steady stream of desserts out of the deal.
I wondered if destiny had a hand in my newfound piemaking abilities; I’d shown proficiency with mud pies at an early age, and I share a pi day (3.14) birthday with Albert Einstein, not to mention other well-known people like Steph Curry and Billy Crystal. They might have fame and fortune, but no matter how you sliced it, I was the pie guy. No longer were pies solely the currency of experienced bakers and grandmoms at county fair contests. The only limit was my imagination—and the range of flavors of canned pie filling.
While seeking out new pie ideas, I was reminded that all kinds of things can be baked into pies. Four and twenty blackbirds, for instance, as in the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” Yes, the emergence of living things from pies was quite the source of entertainment back in the day—be they blackbirds, frogs, squirrels, or dwarfs reciting poetry.
For a different kind of 420 reference, voters who supported the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey might wish to partake of a pot pie—not necessarily the classic chicken-and-vegetables menu item, but rather any pie that’s been infused with cannabis. Getting high from your pie might sound good, but methinks marijuana munchies might be responsible for certain strange—one might say half-baked—pie ideas, such as the Dorito and Onion pie, Pickle and Peanut Butter pie, and Hot Dog pie.
If you’re short on turkey or chicken but long on blackbirds, you can visit cajuncookingrecipes.com and attempt a real (cooked) blackbird pie, but please note that the recipe calls for 25 blackbirds, not 24. It’s the extra blackbird that makes the difference, I hear.
In contrast to bird pies, pie birds are small, hollow, ceramic birds used to vent steam from your pie during baking; they are also objects that some people spend ridiculous amounts of time and money collecting.
Shifting from birds to insects, one might make a grasshopper pie, with real grasshoppers (once popular in the Philippines) or without (the crème de menthe version, a more popular option here in America). Or a southern-style tomato pie, with ingredients that would never be found in the Trenton version, like cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and sour cream. Pies are where C-list berries find purpose: marionberries, gooseberries, loganberries, and boysenberries, to name a few. There’s Elvis Pie, properly decadent (chocolate, peanut butter, and banana), and vinegar pie—properly desperate, but a step up from water pie, that being a meager combination of water, flour, sugar, and butter.
Perhaps the most bizarre pie (and that’s saying something) is the Stargazy pie, which sounds quite pleasant and romantic, but gets its name from the fish heads protruding from the pie crust, staring up at the sky, and you.
And when eating pies has lost its thrill, there’s the comedic tradition of pie-throwing. According to Sir Toony Van Dukes, a “well-known member” of the Clown Forum community (clown-forum.com), most throwing pies are inedible, filled with shaving cream rather than whipped cream or some other filling, for purposes of cost containment and easier cleanup. Not to show a lack of “piety” toward clown nobility, but when it comes to thrown pies, I think I’d much rather see someone walloped with a nice gooey cherry or lemon meringue.
Well, one can dream. But back in reality, my pie-in-the-sky dreams were beginning to crumble like a dry, overworked crust. Over the next few days, I noticed the uneaten remains of pies accumulating on the kitchen counter, or in the refrigerator. I tried refrigerated and frozen crusts; I tried a different source for my pie fillings; I even did a modicum of work, mixing up a no-bake key lime pie. They weren’t horrible, but each new pie fell a bit short of expectations, and my enthusiasm waned.
The 90/10 ratio still applied, but it seems that extra effort, like an extra blackbird, is crucial to creating top-level foodstuffs. The final pie I tasted was that bitter one we all eat from time to time: humble pie.