Before my celiac diagnosis, I had making pie down pat. In fact, for years, one of my nicknames was Pie. I learned to make them years before, at the knees of my mother, who learned to make them from her Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother. For reasons I could never fathom, people seem frightened of making pies. “Oh, I could never make the crust,” I’ve heard at parties. Too daunting, apparently. But since I had been learning to make pie crust (and cinnamon rolls and cookies) from my mother before I could consciously remember, I never understood the fuss. The secret to great pie dough is patience. Understand that pie dough can be a little stroppy, a little quick to wilt or turn tough. You really have to listen to it with your hands, with a deft touch and a pause before continuing on to the next step. In time, I had perfected the process, and I could roll out out a pie dough and pop it in the oven faster than it would take to drive to the store and buy a frozen pie. I knew pies.
And when I lived in New York, I made pies, all the time. Since relatively few people in New York even cook (at least in Manhattan), this made me something of a celebrity. One weekend, after a trip to the Catskills with friends, the car full of fresh-picked apples, I threw an apple pie party at my apartment. I started in the morning and spent all day in the kitchen, averting my mind from anything but the task at hand. The counters were covered in flour, and there were bits of half-baked dough in the gas burners of the stove, but by the early evening, I had seven pies, steaming, waiting for my guests. I invited all my friends over and poured them all glasses of milk. And cut them hunks of pie. They all moaned with happiness, exclaimed about the taste, and said the same thing, “You didn’t make the crust, did you?” I just laughed, happy they were enjoying it.
Once, I made a cherry pie for a dinner party at my friend’s apartment on 84th Street. Since I lived on 101st, I knew I wouldn’t have far to go, and I was just too cheap to take a cab for that little distance. So I planned to take the M104 bus. But planning ahead with food, so the pie is not only made but perfectly cooled before I climb on a big-city bus with a pie, has never been one of my strong suits. I dashed around the kitchen, checking on the state of the fruit beginning to bubble softly in the slits of the top crust, and took time to dust the flour from my nose. One look at the clock told me I didn’t have time to wait any longer. So I grabbed my purse, than pulled the pie from the oven, and went down the elevator with a hot cherry pie in my oven-mitted hands.
Now granted, I’m sure this isn’t a typical sight on the Upper West Side, but I had no idea what a commotion I would make. My doorman started first, craning his neck to see where that indelible smell was coming from, down the hall. When he spotted me, he shouted, in his thick Albanian accent, “Hey! Can I have some?” I smiled genially and passed on by. The guy on the stoop, the one who always hung out at the stoop, grinned up at me as I passed, the only smile he ever gave me, and murmured, “Ah, pie. Now that’s a woman.” As I walked onto the street, I saw hungry eyes following me, fixed on the pie. When I walked into the crosswalk, a trucker leaned down on his horn and startled me so much I nearly dropped the pie. He laughed and pointed at the pie, as though he were catcalling a beautiful girl.
Shaking my head and laughing at the scene, which felt like it came from a surrealist movie, I climbed onto the bus when it came. Fumbling with my Metro card and trying to balance the pie on the card reader, I didn’t look at the other people on the bus for a moment. But when I looked up, I saw that they were all staring at me. Every one of them. Even the guy in the back who usually sat slumped against the window, drooling. Every one of them was looking at me. No. They were looking at my pie. Suddenly shy, I ducked my head and walked down the center aisle, sometimes nodding at people as I went by. But I could tell—their heads followed me. When I finally found a plastic blue seat open, I scrunched down into it. The woman next to me fake moaned, “Oh, you would have to sit next to me!” And then she said, “Can I have a piece?” To which I gamely smiled and half laughed, the way I was supposed to. But I’ve always wondered—what would happen if I said, “Okay!” then took out a knife and cut her a slice? (And I’ve always wanted to try it. Another time.)
Just as everyone seemed to have settled down and grown used to the pie, we stopped at 96th Street. Something shifted in the air. An angry passenger climbed onto the bus. Full of frenetic energy, and angry at the world, the lithe man bent his body to bang on the card reader. Short of change, he grew furious at the driver, who finally let him just go to the back without paying. As he walked down the aisle, the man muttered to himself, and to us, about the state of the world and his victimhood in it. Loudly. With vile language. And a hint of violence in the way he walked. Everyone froze. We all looked down at our laps, which left me looking at my steaming cherry pie. I know the rule in New York: don’t make eye contact with a crazy person. It will only make for trouble. And in my mind, I kept thinking, “Please don’t take my pie.” But after a few more stops, I noticed that everything had gone quiet. And the air felt like it was moving again. What had happened to the angry man? I looked up to see him by the back door, a smile across his face, his eyes suddenly delighted, all trace of violence gone. And he was pointing at my lap, then laughed, and said, “Pie!”
It seems that nothing brings New Yorkers together like a fresh-out-of-the-oven pie.
And once, a famous television comedian said that I made the best apple pie he had ever eaten. But I can’t tell you his name, or the quite-hilarious story, because it was a strange, Cyrano de Bergerac tale with pie (me being the writer, of course), and I don’t want to be sued for libel. But if you ever meet me, ask me to tell you this one. It’s a doozy. And he still has my pie plate.
So you can see that, for a woman with this many pie stories, and a dozen others, being told you can never eat gluten again was quite the crushing blow.
Or not. Because now, I have discovered the secret to gluten-free pie crust: chill the dough, for a long time, before you roll it out.
For my dad’s pumpkin pie, I used the Gluten-free Pantry Perfect Pie Crust Mix. I’ve used it before, for the salt cod tart, and one other attempt, which I didn’t write about here, because it failed. But before, I rushed it, or didn’t have all the ingredients. Wheat flour is fairly remarkably forgiving. But gluten-free flour is persnickety. It’s one of the few food substances where you have to use the exact recipe, in the order they give you, or else it will wilt.
So on Saturday, I spent time with it, coaxed it into shape, consulted the back of the package many times as I made it. I used cider vinegar and eggs, as it called for, even though the old, pie-making me screamed at the thought of such foods in my pie crust. I did it. And this time, I actually chilled it, the way the package stated. I left it in the fridge for two hours, covered, and tried to forget it.
When you roll out a gluten-free pie crust, don’t expect it to stick together. That’s what gluten is for–the sticking together. Instead, treat it gingerly, rolling bit by bit. And when it breaks, because it will, don’t despair and try again. It’s done. Instead, take the large pieces in your fingers, and with the same delicacy and firm command as though you were creating a sculpture, place the pieces in the pie pan, then stick them together. (Gluten-free crust is soft, unlike gluten flour, and that is its magic.) Eventually, this Frankenstein creation will turn into pie crust. And then, you’ll be smiling.
Yesterday, when I arrived at my brother’s house, I greeted Elliott with a giant twirl, a raspberry on the belly, and a big smooshy hug. And then I hugged everyone else. Elliott wanted to know what I had brought, so I walked him over to the bulging box of food and opened it up. He bent his head down to look inside, then pulled it up to look at me, with delight, “PIE!” He shouted it, with great glee, at the thought of eating it, and the joy that he recognized it. “I likes pie!” he told me.
That’s my boy.
I’m not going to brag. Let’s just say that everyone enjoyed the food. I pulled more and more dishes out of that magic box of food, and everyone oohed and ahhed. The fritatta was a hit. The pesto vanished, presto. The salads and figs and green beans and cheese made everyone full, to bursting. But it was the pie that fed them best. My dad took one bite, and looked up at me with the same delight that had been in Elliott’s eyes. “Shauna, this is really good. It’s just a really good pie. Who cares that it’s gluten-free? Anyone would love this pie.”
And when I drove home, hours later, I couldn’t help but smile, in the smell of woodsmoke, in that piercing golden light, at the thought that I had finally learned to make a great gluten-free pie.