Pie saved my life. I know it sounds dramatic and unlikely that America’s quintessential comfort food could be credited with such life-saving super powers, but it’s true.
Two and a half years ago, my 43-year-old husband, Marcus Iken, died instantly and unexpectedly – seven hours before he was to sign our divorce papers. I was convinced it was my fault that he died, because I had asked for the divorce. I had broken his heart.
I was incapacitated by grief and guilt. I was — OK, I’ll just say it — suicidal. Until I started baking pie.
I had been a pie baker before, working at a gourmet food take-out café in Malibu for a year in what I called a “pie-baking sabbatical” after quitting a lucrative but stressful dot-com job. I whipped up mountain-high meringue pies. I created fruit pies of all kinds. And I was happy. No matter that I couldn’t live off minimum wage in Malibu: Pie restored my broken spirit.
Still, I didn’t turn to pie immediately after Marcus died. It wasn’t until three months later that I baked another pie.
I was invited to our friends’ Thanksgiving dinner and was asked to provide the dessert — pecan, pumpkin and apple pies, to be precise. When I got my hands in the dough again, when I felt the softness of the flour and butter melding between my bare hands, when I pinched the crusts’ edges, whipped the eggs, stirred the custard, sprinkled the cinnamon, smelled the sweet and spicy scents filling my house as they baked, I was reminded of how pie engages the senses — all of them — and how it ultimately soothes the soul.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you hear everyone’s moans of pleasure as they bite into a slice of your homemade creation. That’s nice — but that’s not how pie saved me.
The moment I knew pie was my savior was on Jan. 23, 2010, National Pie Day, when four of my closest friends helped me make 50 apple pies by hand and give them away by the slice on the streets of Los Angeles. “Why are you giving away free pie?” passersby wanted to know.
“Because we want to make the world a better place,” we replied.
To see strangers digging into the pies that my friends and I had made, to hear comments like “This makes me want to do something nice for someone else”— well, knowing that this pie was making other people happy in turn made me happy. That day was a turning point for me; it showed me that I still had a purpose in this life, that even at my lowest point I still possessed the ability to contribute something to society. Not only have I not stopped baking since; I now teach pie baking so that others may experience that same super power I found through the simple act of sharing.
Mary Spellman’s Apple Pie (Made by Beth at Malibu Kitchen and at the Pitchfork Pie Stand)
I often get asked what my favorite pie is. The answer is, “I love ALL pie!” But forced to narrow it down to just one, I have to go with classic apple: It is reliable, substantial, and nourishing. I love the combination of a butter crust, apples, sugar and cinnamon. Mmm, just the thought of it makes me want a slice right now.
- 7 large Granny Smith* apples (depending on size of apple and size of pie dish)
- ¾ cup sugar
- 4 tbsp flour
- Dash of salt
- 2 tsp cinnamon (or more, depending on how much you like)
- 1 tbsp butter (to put on top of apples before covering with top crust)
- 1 beaten egg (to brush top crust before putting in oven)
*It’s also OK to use a combination of apples; try Braeburn and Royal Gala. Do not use Fuji or Red Delicious—they lack tartness. Also note, the approximate rule of thumb is 3 pounds of fruit per pie.
Lay the prepared bottom crust into the pie dish. Slice half of the peeled apples directly into the pie, arranging and pressing them into the dish to remove extra space between slices. Cover with half of your other ingredients (sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt), then slice the remaining apples and cover with second half of ingredients. Add dollop of butter. Cover with top crust and crimp edges, then brush with the beaten egg (this gives the pie a nice golden brown shine). Use a knife to poke vent holes in the top crust (get creative here with a unique pattern if you want). Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes or so, until juice bubbles. Poke with a knife to make sure apples have softened. Do not overbake or apples will turn mushy.
Beth's Pie Crust (makes a double crust)
- 2½ cups flour (but have at least 3 and ½ cups on hand, as you’ll need extra flour to roll dough and to thicken filling)
- ½ cup butter
- ½ cup vegetable shortening
- Dash of salt
- Ice water (fill one cup, but use only enough to moisten dough)
In a large bowl, work the butter and shortening into the flour with your hands until you see marble-size lumps form. Pour in ice water a little at a time, sort of “fluffing” the flour to mix in liquid. When the dough feels moist, do a “squeeze test” and if it holds together you’re done. Your dough should feel tacky, but not wet. (Do not overwork the dough! It takes very little time and you’ll be tempted to keep touching it, but don’t!) Divide the dough in 2 balls. Form each ball into a disk shape. Roll flat and thin to fit your pie dish. Sprinkle flour under and on top of your dough to keep it from sticking to your rolling surface. Trim excess dough around the edges with scissors so that it is about 1 inch wider than the dish edge.
Tell us, what food has comforted you in tough times? And what's your favorite pie?
Read more about Beth's story and get her recipes in her new book, "Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie."